Introduction

Welcome to Victoria’s Bushfire Risk Management Report 2022–23. This is the 11th annual report on Victoria’s bushfire risk and the second to be delivered by the Office of Bushfire Risk Management (OBRM).

Bushfires are a natural part of the Victorian environment and managing bushfire risk is everyone’s responsibility. Victoria is one of the most bushfire-prone areas in the world and the last two decades have seen a dramatic increase in the number, size, extent, and severity of bushfires. The Victorian Government recognises that bushfire risk cannot be eliminated. It also acknowledges the significant threat that climate change poses to communities, the economy and the environment through more frequent and severe bushfire emergencies and acts to manage this threat accordingly.

Following the 2019-20 bushfires, the Victorian Government established OBRM within the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA). OBRM is responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of an end-to-end framework for evidence-based bushfire risk management (including policy, practice, assurance, and reporting) across all public and private land in Victoria, with a primary focus on fuel management. OBRM is supported by an advisory panel and works in partnership with Victorian Government agencies, local government, landholders, and communities to reduce the likelihood and impact of bushfires over the long term.

OBRM’s role does not extend to seasonal preparedness, readiness and response activities, or the on-ground delivery of bushfire risk reduction activities. Statutory authorities remain accountable for their statutory functions. Land managers and landholders retain primary responsibility for delivering bushfire risk reduction activities on their land.

The report

The seasonal bushfire outlook for summer 2023 indicates that government, communities and individuals across Victoria will need to prepare for bushfires as Australia’s climate transitions from a phase of abundant vegetation growth supported by wetter La Niña conditions to El Niño conditions where rainfall usually reduces during summer. This climate outlook and the information in this report should be taken into consideration and bushfire risk mitigation strategies adjusted as appropriate.

This report provides information on bushfire risk management delivery and outcomes at state, regional and district levels across both public and private land for the financial year 2022–23.

While this report largely focuses on fuel management activities, it includes data not captured in previous reports. Future iterations of the report will continue to expand to provide a more comprehensive overview of the activities undertaken by the sector to manage bushfire risk. New inclusions in this report include fire ignition controls and community education, awareness, and engagement to prevent and respond to bushfires and smoke. This year’s report also includes more detailed reporting from the County Fire Authority (CFA).

Bushfire risk

In Victoria, vegetation, climate, and dispersed communities mean that there will always be a need to live with the risk of bushfires. This means that it is necessary to understand what creates bushfire risk, where it exists in the landscape and what the government, communities and individuals can do to reduce the likelihood and impact of bushfires.

Bushfire risk refers to the likelihood and consequence of something being impacted by a bushfire. It includes the likelihood of a bushfire starting, growing and spreading across a landscape, and the likelihood of things being in the path of the fire (such as people, houses, farms, critical infrastructure, and wildlife habitat). Victoria is particularly susceptible to large and intense bushfires that can spread rapidly across vast distances in the landscape due to the state’s naturally flammable vegetation, and frequent exposure to hot, dry and windy weather. Bushfire risk is affected by factors including the weather, the type and condition of fuels in a certain place and its topography, the location of people and assets, and the ability to prevent fires from igniting and suppressing them once they ignite.

Fuel-driven bushfire risk is the component of bushfire risk that is attributable to bushfire fuels, that is, vegetation that influences fire behaviour, such as the speed and intensity of a bushfire.

Fuel is a key element of fire behaviour, and therefore is a major component of overall bushfire risk. However, fuel is not the only factor that affects fire behaviour, or the likelihood and consequence of bushfires impacting people and the things we care about. Topography and weather, particularly wind and temperature, are two other key elements of fire behaviour. As weather conditions become more severe, the influence of fuel on fire behaviour decreases. That’s why it’s important to manage bushfire risk using a wide range of interventions.

Who manages bushfire risk in Victoria?

Victoria’s approach to bushfire risk management is underpinned by shared responsibility and brings together land and fire agencies, councils, landowners, and the community to deliver tailored bushfire risk reduction approaches that draw on our collective knowledge and strengths and reflect local needs. These partnerships continue to be vital in enabling effective on-ground delivery.

How is bushfire risk managed?

Victoria takes a risk-based approach to bushfire management, meaning that resources are invested in bushfire management activities where they will have the greatest impact in protecting human life, property and the environment. This approach has been repeatedly reviewed by experts and inquiries, and consistently found to be leading practice both nationally and internationally. However, a level of risk will always remain.

Bushfire risk is managed through a wide range of interventions, including planned burning and non-burn fuel treatment, construction and maintenance of strategic fuel breaks and fire access roads, community education, fire ignition controls, early detection and aggressive first attack to bring bushfires rapidly under control while they are still small.

Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMVic) on behalf of the sector models what impact fuel management activities have on reducing fuel-driven bushfire risk to inform fuel management planning and performance evaluation. This approach focuses on the role that planned burns have in moderating the severity of bushfires at large scales and the consequential likely reduction in impacts.

FFMVic is made up of staff from DEECA, Parks Victoria, Melbourne Water and VicForests and is responsible for managing fuel-driven bushfire risk in State forests, national parks and other protected public land in Victoria under the Forests Act 1958. The CFA works with land managers – including local councils and private landholders – to support the delivery of fire prevention works on other land tenures. FFMVic and CFA also work together to deliver burns on both public and private land (cross-tenure burns) and burns on the private-public interface.

While the majority of the state’s annual fuel management program focuses on reducing the risk of bushfires to human life and property, the Joint Fuel Management Program (JFMP) also includes burns that are undertaken for ecological purposes, and cultural burns which are nominated and led by Traditional Owners.

In addition to pursuing strong partnerships with Traditional Owners to manage bushfire risk, the Victorian Government and its land and fire management agencies are committed to supporting self-determination, including supporting Traditional Owners to implement the Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Strategy and lead the reintroduction of cultural fire on Country.

What does managing bushfire risk look like on the ground?

Victoria’s bushfire management sector takes a year-round approach to reducing bushfire risk. All year, sector partners:

  • plan and deliver planned burns and non-burn fuel treatments,
  • construct and maintain strategic fuel breaks,
  • maintain and improve strategic fire access road networks,
  • undertake other bushfire risk-reduction activities, such as using predictive weather and fire behaviour advice to strategically position air and ground resources on days when bushfire risk is increased,
  • engage with the community to support placed-based programs to reduce bushfire risk at the local level and to increase community understanding of bushfire risk,
  • conduct research to improve risk reduction approaches,
  • declare and enforce fire danger periods, manage a system of permits for burning during the fire danger period and determine total fire bans, and
  • manage fire danger rating signs, warnings and advice.

Fuel management is a key strategy for reducing bushfire risk and one of the key activities to protect communities from bushfires. Fuel is any grass, leaf litter, twigs, bark and other live vegetation that can burn. Fuel builds up at different rates in different areas depending on how fast the vegetation grows compared to how fast it decomposes. One of the major ways to manage bushfire risk in Victoria is to manage fuels.

Fuel management includes reducing the accumulation of vegetation to reduce bushfire risk, through:

  • planned burning – lighting and managing planned fires in the landscape, including along roadsides and rail corridors,
  • mechanical treatments – mowing, slashing and mulching,
  • other non-burn treatments like spraying for weed management,
  • construction and maintenance of the strategic fuel breaks, and
  • removal or management of storm debris.

Managing fuels makes bushfire suppression easier and safer for firefighters and helps to reduce the impact of bushfires on communities and the environment.

The drivers for fuel-driven bushfire risk differ across the state. Variables include the types of forests, the topography and the location of communities and weather (both surface and atmospheric). The methods that the government and community can use to manage fuel-driven bushfire risk also vary. While fuel management on public land is the most effective broadscale management lever, in some areas fuel management on private land is equally, if not more important. In areas close to towns, planned burns are more frequent to protect people and the things they value. In other areas, planned burns can be used to reduce the spread of bushfires across the landscape. Some areas can be excluded from planned burning to protect sites that are sensitive to fire.

On public land, fuel management is conducted across four Fire Management Zones:

  • Asset Protection Zone – aims to reduce fuel through planned burning or other methods approximately every 5 to 7 years.
  • Bushfire Moderation Zone – aims to reduce fuel through planned burning or other methods approximately every 8 to 15 years. The length of time between planned burns in some areas can vary due to ecological considerations.
  • Landscape Management Zone – planned burning will focus on maintaining and improving ecosystem resilience, and fuel management will also be undertaken for risk reduction.
  • Prescribed Burning Exclusion Zone – no planned burning. These are primarily areas that do not tolerate fire, such as rainforest areas.

Although the name of the zone indicates its primary purpose, it is recognised that multiple goals can be achieved when undertaking activities in each zone, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Primary outcomes focus for each Fire Management Zone

Fire management zones

Numerous different methods are used to reduce the amount of fuel and bushfire risk in a landscape. Importantly, these methods vary between Fire Management Zones. Methods used include planned burning, slashing and mowing, creating and maintaining strategic fuel breaks, and managing storm debris.

While in many parts of the State fuel management on public land can achieve significant risk reduction, this is not the case in all areas. For example, in the Port Phillip Region, which covers the forested areas to Melbourne’s north and east, there is a greater opportunity to reduce fuel-driven bushfire risk by treating fuels on private land compared to public land.

Both the IGEM Phase 1 Inquiry into the 2019-20 Victorian fire season and the VAGO Reducing Bushfire Risk Audit recognise and recommend the need to increase the management of fuels on private land and that this should be done in tandem with fuel management on public land.

While effective fuel management is a critical part of how bushfire risk is managed in Victoria, as the climate changes opportunities to conduct planned burning safely and effectively are increasingly becoming more limited in some parts of Victoria. More frequent extreme weather conditions mean that the moderate conditions required to deliver planned burning while mitigating the risk of escape or adverse outcomes are less frequent. The full suite of actions across prevention, preparedness, and response to reduce bushfire risk will be needed.

This includes work across agencies, across tenures and with communities to strengthen shared responsibility and activate individuals, communities, industry, and the not-for-profit sector to work together to manage bushfires. A more holistic view of bushfire risk management also allows for the development of comprehensive strategies that not only reduce risk but reduce the impacts of fire management activities such as planned burning on industry, the environment and public health. There are trade-offs from managing fuel-driven risk through planned burning.

For example, planned burning creates smoke, which can result in localised community and industry concerns about smoke impacts. Industries that may be affected include tourism, apiary and viticulture. These impacts must be weighed against the potentially catastrophic risks the community faces from bushfires, which typically release significantly higher smoke concentrations than planned burning.

FFMVic, CFA, the Department of Health (DoH), and Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) now use leading weather science, smoke forecasting models and available air quality monitoring to actively schedule and/or modify planned burning to reduce or manage the impacts of smoke. FFMVic and CFA engage closely with stakeholders and communities about the timing of planned burns to understand and help manage potential impacts. Planned Burns Victoria allows Victorians to view and receive notifications for planned burns near them.

The impact on the environment is also considered by the fire agencies. Planned burning supports the ecological and biodiversity objectives of the Code of Practice for Bushfire Management on Public Land by reducing the size and intensity of bushfires that impact environmental assets and promoting appropriate fire regimes for ecosystem resilience. FFMVic and the CFA consider the risk of fire, both bushfires and planned burning to ecological and biodiversity values through all levels of planning.

For each burn, FFMVic and CFA utilise available datasets to identify environmental values within a planned burn area and work with biodiversity specialists to incorporate mitigation actions into burn planning and delivery, to reduce potential adverse impacts arising from the planned burn activity.

When planned burns are delivered, mitigation actions (such as protection of critical habitat features) and planned burn tactics (such as particular lighting patterns) are implemented to minimise impacts to ecological values.

Fuel-driven bushfire risk

Fuel-driven bushfire risk is the component of bushfire risk that is attributable to bushfire fuels.

Fuels are a key element of fire behaviour, and therefore are a major component of overall bushfire risk. However, it is not a full measure of bushfire risk, because fuel is not the only factor that affects fire behaviour, or the likelihood and consequence of bushfires impacting people and the things they care about.

The primary determinants of fire behaviour are topography, weather and fuel. The sector models the impact that planned burns and bushfires have on reducing fuel-driven bushfire risk to human life and property by modelling fire behaviour as a function of:

  1. topography as represented by a digital elevation model of Victoria
  2. weather as represented by a catastrophic fire weather scenario, and
  3. fuel as represented by the varying fuel load across Victoria from year to year

This impact is calculated and expressed as the percentage of fuel-driven bushfire risk ‘leftover’ after fuels have been reduced, either through planned burning or bushfires. A current constraint is that this calculation can only consider the contribution of planned burning and not non-burn fuel treatments such as slashing and mowing.

Victoria has a statewide target to maintain fuel-driven bushfire risk at or below 70% of maximum levels. The level of fuel-driven bushfire risk is different across the landscape, due to variations in vegetation, topography and where houses are located. Each FFMVic region and district has a long-term planning target for reducing fuel-driven bushfire risk, which contributes to the achievement of the statewide target. Regional and district fuel-driven bushfire risk targets vary across the State, and are influenced by both the level of risk in an area (influenced by vegetation, topography and the location of houses) as well as the leverage that FFMVic has over reducing risk through fuel management on public land.

The Bushfire Management Strategy for each region sets out the strategy for achieving these long-term planning targets as well as achieving a broader range of objectives defined in the Code of Practice for Bushfire Management on Public Land 2012 These strategies have been developed with communities to:

  • identify values to be protected from bushfires
  • assess bushfire risk to those values, and
  • set out strategies to manage this risk

Individual strategies for all Victoria regions are available on the Safer Together website.

Where bushfire risk cannot be managed through fuel management, FFMVic together with Safer Together sector partners work to ensure bushfire risk is managed through prevention, preparedness and response activities such as ignition controls, community education, community information, early detection and aggressive first attack to bring bushfires rapidly under control while they are still small.

In this year’s report, fuel management activities conducted by the CFA are included in the statewide, regional and district risk calculations. In time, advances in modelling and changes to the approach in accounting for contributions will enable the sector to report on how a broader range of prevention, preparedness and response activities – including mechanical fuel treatment – have contributed to reducing the risk of bushfires.

Joint fuel management program

The Joint Fuel Management Program (the program) is a statewide operational planning process for the management of bushfire fuels on public and private land over a 3-year rolling timeframe. The program integrates a risk-based bushfire management approach that the sector works within and shares personnel, resources, vehicles, and other equipment to maximise the prioritisation and delivery of fuel management activities.

FFMVic and CFA staff developed the program in consultation with local councils, the viticulture and tourism industries, beekeepers, and flora and fauna specialists – drawing on knowledge from local communities, including Traditional Owners, key stakeholders, local community leaders and other interested parties. Burns are nominated for a variety of reasons including:

  • reducing bushfire risk
  • enhancing ecological resilience
  • regeneration
  • supporting Traditional Owners to reintroduce cultural fire to the Country

FFMVic and the CFA welcome and encourage public involvement around the timing and scheduling of activities in local areas.

Government investment to manage bushfire risk

The Victorian Government recognises the significant threat that climate change poses to communities, the economy and the environment through more frequent and severe bushfire emergencies.

The Victorian Government allocated an unprecedented $517 million in the 202122 State Budget to continue advancing Victoria’s approach to managing bushfire risk under a changing climate. This included funding for our firefighters to deliver an enhanced fuel management program and expand Victoria’s network of strategic fuel breaks, as well as $133 million to upgrade the digital radio network for FFMVic staff and CFA volunteers to support safe and effective firefighting.

This was followed by a further $96 million investment through the 202223 State Budget to strengthen preparedness arrangements, replace and renew critical fire and emergency assets, and fund aerial firefighting that is critical for supporting safe and effective bushfire suppression.

Since 2020, the Victorian Government has invested $35 million to build 1,489km of strategic fuel breaks in high-priority locations across Victoria, close to townships, key assets, water catchments and sensitive environments, and in areas where we want to reduce the size of fires. Through the 2023-24 State Budget, the government committed a further $3.755 million over four years to the ongoing maintenance of the strategic fuel break network.

The government also invested $14.3 million a year to fund the transition of 100 fixed-term Forest Fire Operations Officers to ongoing, while $7.4 million is funding 54 fixed-term Forest Fire Operations Officer roles in 2023-24.

Victoria’s risk-based approach to bushfire management means that the resources invested in bushfire management are directed where they will have the greatest impact in reducing risk to Victorians and the things they care about most.

Bushfire risk management reform

The Victorian Government and key land and fire agencies committed to a major program of reform in response to recommendations of the Inspector-General for Emergency Management’s Phase 1 Inquiry into the 2019-20 Victorian fire season and the Victorian Auditor-General Office’s Reducing Bushfire Risks audit.

Key commitments including the establishment of OBRM and its advisory panel, expanding the membership of the Safer Together program, and commencing the expansion of this report to include a broader range of agencies and activities involved in bushfire risk reduction have already been acquitted.

Key projects to be delivered over the coming 12 months include:

  • a new bushfire management strategy for Victoria and accompanying monitoring, evaluation and reporting framework
  • a review of the fuel management legislative framework
  • a review of the fuel management targets that guide the delivery of FFMVic’s fuel management program
  • a roadmap to expand targets to other agencies and tenures

In addition, OBRM is working with its advisory panel and broader sector to identify other opportunities to:

  • more effectively reduce bushfire risk across all public and private land
  • better allocate resources and investment
  • improve credibility and assurance with respect to bushfire risk management

OBRM is also working towards a review of Victoria’s bushfire management planning arrangements including the Joint Fuel Management Program, identifying opportunities to enhance fuel systems to support cross-sector fuel management, and strengthening how the sector communicates and works with the community to manage bushfire risk.

Working with Traditional Owners to enable them to undertake cultural fire practices and supporting biodiversity recovery through revegetation and reseeding activities are also key priorities.

The Victorian Government recognises the important role that harvest and haulage contractors play in FFMVic’s emergency and fire prevention and response work, by providing critical capacity and capability with their specialist plant, equipment and skilled personnel. As part of the transition arrangements following the announcement by the Victorian Government that all commercial timber harvesting in Victoria’s State forests would conclude by 1 January 2024, Victoria’s forest contractors will remain engaged by VicForests until 30 June 2024 ensuring their availability for this bushfire season. Planning is also progressing which will see forest contractors offered alternative work in forest and land management across Victoria, which will also secure their critical skills, experience and specialised equipment for use in bushfire prevention, response and recovery.

Data and model output improvements

The best available evidence-based models and data are used to calculate the results presented in this report each year. Models for metrics, such as fuel-driven bushfire risk or reported costs, are updated regularly when technology improves, better data becomes available, the research program provides new knowledge or mapping accuracy improves. Modelling and data improvements can cause information reported in previous years reports to change. For example, improved fire history and severity mapping may result in a recalculation of fuel-driven bushfire risk in a particular region. Appendix A explains these specific changes.

Despite the data and model improvements described above, limitations to the modelling remain. For example, the current method for calculating fuel-driven bushfire risk can only consider fuel reductions that occur due to planned burning or bushfires. This means that the method cannot account for the risk reduction benefits of the broader fuel management program, such as mechanical fuel reduction and smaller treatments like roadside vegetation management. Further, the calculation does not currently account for bushfire risk management activities beyond fuel management, such as reducing potential sources of ignitions or increasing the success of fire suppression. Lastly, the fuel-driven bushfire risk metric is currently limited to expressing risk reduction to human life and property, and not the full spectrum of values that may be impacted by bushfire.

Improving the data and science behind decisions happens continuously and is reflected through updates to reporting. Consequently, direct comparisons between this report and past or future reports cannot necessarily be made. For the most accurate view of current and historical figures, always consult the most recent report.

Updated