Responsible Wood is sharing the stories from those at the frontline, managing and preserving forests amidst the 2019/2020 Australian bushfire season, Black Summer, the impact of those fires and the recovery efforts over recent months.

In the second of this three-part series, we look at the impact on the forest infrastructure and the recovery efforts post-fire.

Following the 2019-20 bushfire season, many forests across NSW were affected by fires. Around half of the native State forests and 65,000 hectares of State forest timber plantations were impacted by fire in some way, which is about half the State forest estate.

On the ground, this resulted in unstable and dangerous trees, roads blocked with fallen timber, burnt bridges and community infrastructure destroyed.

There was much work ahead to rebuild and reopen.

The immediate aftermath

During the lead-up and during the bushfires, State forests were closed to visitors due to the imminent or present threat of bushfire. This closure remained post bushfires for an extended period while crews could assess the impact of the fires and the risks to visitors

Forestry Corporation’s Senior Manager of Forest Stewardship Kathy Lyons said that State forests post-bushfire were incredibly dangerous places.

“Post-fire forests carry a high risk of trees falling,” Kathy said.

“There was a very high risk to public safety, so we kept forests closed until our staff could inspect and remediate any risks.”

Extensive damage occurred to not only trees and wildlife, but also road infrastructure and general forest access.

Forestry Corporation staff had now moved from firefighters to forest inspectors, assessing and recording damage and dangers.

Billie-Jo Brown, the Production and Stewardship Supervisor

Billie-Jo Brown, the Tumbarumba Production and Stewardship Supervisor. Image supplied by Forestry Corporation of NSW

Meet Billie-Jo Brown, Production and Stewardship Supervisor based at Tumbarumba. Billie-Jo manages the forests of the Tumbarumba region and on any given day could be working with her team supervising timber harvesting, maintaining roads, ensuring that feral animals and weeds are being controlled or ensuring that the forests are safe for forest visitors. 

Over the fire season, Billie-Jo fought fires on the north coast before being on standby and duty officer rosters locally around Tumbarumba from November to late March. Working in Incident Management Team roles in operations, liaison and logistics and in the field as a Heavy Plant Supervisor and Divisional Commander, Billie-Jo also took on the role of Community Liaison Officer during the Tumbarumba fires working with the Snowy Valleys Council, local Police and the RFS.

Reflecting on the season, Billie-Jo said that turning up to work knowing that at that very moment, her own family home was going up in flames was one of the hardest experiences.

“Trying to stay strong and focused knowing you and your family are losing so much was really tough,” Billie-Jo said. 

“Taking a flight in the chopper over the Dunns Creek fireground and seeing my parent’s house and close family friends’ houses destroyed from above was heartbreaking.”

But out of the flames came community resilience and recovery.

“Rescuing injured wildlife and being able to feed hungry fellow firefighters gave us a purpose. Delivering care packages to affected landholders as part of the Community Liaison role and showing our community that we cared and that we were there for them – we received lots of hugs of appreciation.”

Making State forests safe again

Under the Make Good, Make Safe program, Forestry Corporation staff and agency partners worked hard to prepare and reopen burnt forests across the state.

Over the six months following the fire season, forests were progressively assessed, risks were removed and areas reopened.

“This was careful and slow work – there were many dangerous standing trees, fallen debris and burnt log bridges,” Billie-Jo said.

“Heavy rain also saw some roads slump and become even more dangerous.”

“We’re pleased to have reopened many of our forests now to visitors and see them recovering.”

Peter Walters, the Acting Forest Protection Manager

On the north coast, Acting Forest Protection Manager, Peter Walters said one important project was replacing burnt bridges in Doubleduke State Forest.

“We are partnering with local industries and contractors to repair or replace bridges and reopen main forest roads,” Peter said.

“In Doubleduke State Forest, we worked with Grafton-based business Big River Timbers to use timber from NSW State forests for the bridge project.”

This means that not only does the recovery process support local timber communities and contractors, but also a renewable and certified product is being used to rebuild State forests.

The wildlife response

While work was underway to repair forest infrastructure, Forestry Corporation staff were also on the front foot to support native fauna in the recovery.

Forestry staff have a personal connection with the animals of the forests so were keen to support them during the initial months while the forests recovered.

Forestry Corporation initiated a range of programs to support native fauna during the recovery period. This included establishing water stations, installing nesting boxes and baiting for feral predators on State forest land.

Staff worked with wildlife carer groups to train people to enter the firegrounds, and many animals were treated for recovery through these networks.

Forestry staff also deployed water stations quickly across the north coast to support animal under both fire and drought pressure.

These ranged from chicken feeders, to large black tubs with ladder bridges, to the purpose-built large metal frame with two platforms fed by a large plastic drum. The large structures were installed as a collaboration with the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital using the Gwymac Landcare design.

The stations were monitored regularly to ensure fresh water supply and were set up with remote cameras. The first species using the water stations were birds, with a range of species recorded.

In addition to the large suite of bird species, which included multiple species at the same time, such as honeyeaters, kingfishers, parrots, finches and bowerbirds, the monitoring cameras also recorded goannas, wallabies and koalas.

Chris Slade, the Senior Ecologist

Coffs Harbour Field Ecologist Peter Simon in the forest. Image supplied by Forestry Corporation of NSW

Forestry Corporation’s Senior Ecologist Chris Slade said the nesting box project was another key initiative of the recovery process.

“Our Coffs Harbour Field Ecologist Peter Simon was building hollows from burnt timber material and fitting them in burnt forests,” Chris said.

“From there we had a series of conversations, which saw us partnering with FAWNA (NSW) in Wauchope and NSW Rural Fire Service’s State Mitigation Services team to develop a nest box construction, deployment and monitoring project.”

Project staff are also working with the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment to plan a monitoring program.

“Ultimately we hope to build on the knowledge to support a healthier forest ecology in the long run,” Chris said.

Mick Wilson, the Protection Supervisor

The post-fire pest animal baiting program was also a critical tool in supporting native fauna recovery, said Forestry Corporation Protection Supervisor, Mick Wilson.

“Winter is when feral predators are at their hungriest – they are doing it tough, preparing for breeding and chasing protein,” Mick said.

“Post-fire, this puts additional pressure on native fauna during this vulnerable recovery stage.

“The 2020 baiting program was the largest we have ever done and well-timed to reduce predators’ impact on a recovering fauna populations.”

The resilience of the forest and landscape has also supported wildlife recovery.

“There is an amazing abundance of feed as the season has improved and forests recover; ground conditions are fantastic and primed for a strong breeding response,” Mick said.

The long road ahead

With over 20,000km of forest roads affected in the fires, there is much to be done to restore forest access for both timber harvesting and community use.

The $46 million bushfire recovery program from the NSW Government is seeing the first stage of this rebuilding work happening now.

The funding is going towards repairing damaged public infrastructure, expanding the Grafton and Blowering nurseries and begin planting activities in bushfire affected State forests.

This funding also plays an important role in regional recovery, as Forestry Corporation partners with local industries and contractors to repair or replace bridges and reopen main forest roads.

As the forests regenerate around us after the fires, so too will the infrastructure be rebuilt. It may take many years to repair all that was lost in the fires but the road to recovery has begun.

Next week, an inside look at the fire salvage effort in NSW pine plantations and getting ready to replant after the fires.