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Two years on, water sector applies Black Summer bushfire lessons

It’s been almost two years since Australia experienced the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires. While the millions of hectares of decimated ecosystems have begun the process of regeneration, the disaster is fresh in the minds of communities as bushfire season begins. 

Lessons learned for the water sector following the 2019-20 bushfires were hard won, but the events have spurred a renewed focus on sharing experiences and insights, as well as planning processes to ensure best-practice fire management in future. 

While Australia’s bushfire season begins at different times, depending on the state or territory and climatic conditions, as summer approaches water utilities around Australia are engaging in fire risk assessments as part of preparation protocol. 

And while many Australian regions have been enjoying wetter conditions in recent months, the continued threat of potential bushfires should not be underestimated, NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers said. 

“With the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) continuing to forecast wetter than average conditions through spring, we are expecting to see strong grass and crop growth particularly in areas west of the divide,” he said. 

“As we enter the warmer months, this will begin to dry out and may prove problematic for both landholders and firefighters. Grass fires typically move three times quicker than bush fires and can impact on lives and livelihoods with little to no warning.

“It is important that we all understand our level of risk and prepare accordingly.”

Published in May 2020, the Water Services Association of Australia’s Bushfire Management guideline collates insights and best-practice expertise from more than 20 different water authorities and organisations from around Australia. 

With best-practice management including four overarching steps spanning the entire cycle of bushfire events — planning, preparation, response and recovery — many water utilities will be focused now on preparation as summer sets in. 

Managing hazards

While preparation includes reassessing bushfire risk with information from BoM, and local and state or territory-based fire services, water utilities will also be turning attention to fuel hazards, identifying infrastructure in areas that may require a hazard reduction program.  

Wannon Water Service Delivery General Manager Ian Bail said the Emergency Management Manual Victoria outlines the roles that different organisations play in emergency management, including water corporations.

“Municipal committees develop integrated fire management plans for the local regions, using the Victorian Fire Risk Register (VFRR) as the state register of fire risks,” he said.

“The VFRR identifies assets at risk from wildfire, assesses the level of risk, and provides a range of treatments to mitigate the risk.”

Bail said fuel reduction and site maintenance are important activities to mitigate the risk of bushfire to individual assets.

“Wannon directly manages around 2000 hectares of land, and formal assessments have been undertaken to determine sites at higher risk from bushfires," he said.

Wannon’s Dunkeld Sewage Treatment Plant long-term management plan uses controlled burning as part of its objective to maintain and improve natural assets. 

“Wannon is one of the first private land managers to effectively utilise ecological burning as a management tool for this vegetation type, and a number of partnerships have been developed,” Bail said.

“It is a practical demonstration of using fire to achieve both ecological and asset protection outcomes on private land. This complements the established practices of implementing controlled burning regimes on public land, which have primarily focused on the protection of people and property.”

Aside from fuel reduction techniques, Water Corporation — responsible for 33,000 parcels of land — has begun harnessing the latest available data, science and software to ensure evidence-based decisions are made to reduce bushfire risk.

“There are a number of ways that Water Corporation manages fuel loads and bushfire risk on land and assets,” Water Corporation Assets Planning and Delivery General Manager Evan Hambleton said.

“This includes developing bushfire management plans, vegetation management strategies, clearing or establishing fire breaks and controlled burning. Detailed fuel load assessments are conducted where land meets high-risk criteria, and risk-reduction gap treatments and site maintenance regimes are developed and implemented.

“The process requires automation, and a bushfire risk assessment tool has been developed based on an objective risk-assessment methodology to make decisions about bushfire risk reduction on Water Corporation land.

“The output of this tool, which is a GIS spatial layer containing data on each piece of land as well as a risk rating, can then feed into the investment decision processes to mitigate bushfire risk.”

Along with using modern technologies, Hambleton said Water Corporation’s collaborative approach has also seen it work in conjunction with Traditional Owners.

“An example is in the Dampier Peninsula, where hazard reduction burns are planned for the Broome borefield, and where we have engaged with the Yawuru traditional landowners to be part of the teams undergoing the work,” he said.

“We anticipate that this engagement will expand to other traditional owners, as the traditional land management techniques are relearned in other parts of the state.”

Operational and critical supply checks

Aside from reducing risks to infrastructure via fuel reduction burns, preparation is also about checking that assets are performing, and that emergency and backup equipment is ready in case infrastructure is affected by fires.

“Wildfire poses a significant risk to water and wastewater infrastructure, and has also at times caused damage to infrastructure and associated power supply, resulting in a loss of service delivery to the community at critical times,” Hambleton said.

“Our customers have an expectation that we will, where reasonably practicable, maintain continuity of supply during bushfire events.”

Operational and critical supply checks help water utilities prepare for scenarios where usual service provision is impacted, including instances where backup generators or uninterrupted power supply devices are required.

University of New South Wales Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Stuart Khan said it’s crucial for water utilities to consider alternate options for service provision as part of preparation steps. 

“Immediately, the real risks are that you might lose the ability to treat and pump water. This is a major potential concern when we face fires close to a town,” Khan said.

Another step in preparation is to consider flexible and adaptive options to allow water treatment plants to operate at reduced flow rates, and to consider pre-planned water sharing schemes in instances where treatment plants come offline. 

Regional water supply schemes allow bulk water to be transferred between councils or utilities, reducing the need for water restrictions due to supply interruption following bushfire events. 

“In a great example of cooperation, the councils [Grafton, Clarence Valley and Coffs Harbour] built a water sharing system that provides flexibility and means if one system gets into trouble it can draw from the other — as happened recently,” Khan said.

“Diversification of water sources has been shown to be a really useful strategy. Having these strategies and protocols in place ahead of time is a key part of being able to respond quickly and effectively.”

Similar equipment sharing arrangements are useful for mobilising backups, with pre-determined staging locations for the transfer of equipment, such as generators, to fire-prone areas.