Only the brave
HVP Plantations runs sustainable forestry programs across the state of Victoria. It uses Isuzu commercial vehicles as part of its first responder crews to control fires and extinguish blazes that might threaten its significant resources in pine and eucalypt plantations.
Part of the fire management strategy of HVP Plantations, a private timber supplier based in Victoria, is to have a geographic spread of its plantation locations across the state.
The company manages an estimated 245,000 hectares of land of which 165,000 hectares are devoted to pine and eucalypt plantations.
Its largest region is in Gippsland although it harvests timber from southwest Victoria, the Otways through the Macedon Ranges up to the NSW border and across the Kinglake and Marysville region – communities devastated by the tragic Black Saturday bushfires in February 2009.
HVP Plantations, not unlike many local businesses situated on burn sites affected that summer, knows firsthand the cost of those bushfires having lost ten per cent of its stock from fires around Kinglake and Marysville, Beechworth and Churchill.
With seven fire brigades, the company works in close collaboration with the Country Fire Authority (CFA), forest fire management and local communities to reduce fire risks to the environment and also battle blazes.
The threat of fire is highest in the aftermath of a protracted, low rainfall summer like the most recent one experienced across Victoria. Ruth Ryan is the Corporate Fire Manager for HVP Plantations.
Her role is state wide, managed out of the Ballarat office, where she just recently monitored three simultaneous fires that threatened a rural residential area including the home of one of HVP Plantation’s contractors.
“Luckily, there was no threat to our plantations, but we were very close to sending resources out,” she says.
“One of the big dangers for fire crews after a hot dry summer is when a hot northwest wind is blowing and there’s a south westerly change behind it. That south westerly change often comes with a strong wind change before we get moisture with it and you get quite a significant fire front on the eastern side of fires if you haven’t controlled it before the change comes through.”
Local fire crews overwhelmed the fires despite working in challenging terrain of native vegetation blocks and many small paddocks which make fire suppression difficult.
Fires are monitored through VHF radios tuned to CFA frequencies to try and determine the proximity of the threat to HVP’s plantation resources.
All of the company’s offices and vehicles are installed with VHF radio.
At present HVP operates 16 Isuzu commercial vehicles across Victoria.
Ruth, who purchases and specs out the trucks says the latest designs have been implemented so that the vehicles are built more akin to a standard CFA truck in back where water cannons, fire pumps and tanks are fitted.
“Because we’re working in forest with overhanging branches one of the things that we need to do is to try and make our trucks as streamlined as possible so nothing protrudes on the vehicle that can get wiped out by tree limbs,” she says.
“If you were to stack our trucks next to a standard CFA truck you’ll notice ours have a much lower profile. We also try and get our tanks as low and wide as possible for a lower centre of gravity when they’re working on steep hills and fire sites so that they’re not prone to rolling. These are fairly major design features that we look for when we’re doing the build on the back of the chassis.”
HVP runs, in the majority, the Isuzu NFTS 139-260 model.
It comes equipped with a stock standard fire tanker.
SEM Fire and Rescue build to the specifications of HVP and these include the modifications required for mounting a 4,000 litre water tank and a large fire-fighting pump to enable crews to pump water over long distances so they can do hose lays, in which connected lengths of fire hose and accessories cover the ground from the pumping unit to point of delivery, into remote areas of plantation.
There’s also, additionally, a canon on the truck to reach burns high up in treetops.
HVP also runs two of the smaller model Isuzu NPS 300 4x4. Its unique modifications include a 1700 litre tank and pump.
“Because they’re a smaller truck overall the NPS 300 is able to get into overgrown tracks and steeper country,” Ruth says. “For us it’s about having a really good 4x4 truck with capabilities to traverse over really rough roads and tracks in the bush and steep inclines found in gullies and native environments.”
The NPS 300 design, widely adopted by a number of other forestry companies for the gains in agility it offers in tough terrain, has been used, in some cases, to replace Toyota Landcruiser slip-on units, which were handicapped by a deficiency in water carrying capacity and inadequate fire over protection.
HVP has dedicated two units to its operations, with one in the northern region and the other working in Gippsland.
Standard CFA country fire tankers are generally more suited for agricultural type application in open areas such as those under threat by a fast running grass fire and urban house fire suppression says Ruth.
“Theirs is more a utility type vehicle whereas ours are specifically concentrating on being forest fire trucks,” she says.
“Our latest version on the FTS 139 is our own design with gross concessional mass (GCM) specific for forest fire fighting rather than your standard chassis.”
The company harvests over three million tonnes of timber per year. Radiata pine production is geared around making softwood for sawlogs destined for timber industries in Colac, Yarrum, Mt Gambier and Myrtleford and a few mills in NSW.
The majority of it, according to Ruth, goes into housing frames and construction. Any timber that fails to meet size requirements for sawlogs will go into particle board, MDF plants, pulp and paper – for international export.
“Once an area has been harvested we actually turn it back into forest,” Ruth says. “We do some site preparation work and then we replant the trees often in the year following the harvest.”
Fast growing radiator pine is planted close together to encourage it to grow up and not out. New trees are usually put back in the ground 12 to 18 months following the final harvest of the forest.
Eucalypt, unlike the more versatile radiata pine, which will grow on poorer quality land, will take between 40 to 60 years and depends on high rainfall areas such as the La Trobe Valley.
All of the trees are planted by hand and measure to around 1100 trees per hectare. When the pine starts to mature at 12 years every fifth row will be removed.
A thinning of the bays, to help maximise production, allows the remaining trees to grow again as they benefit from surplus nutrients and water.
This process for the softwood trees continues until a final harvest at which point the radiata pine is 30 years old.
Ruth says HVP is responsible for managing fire on its land but legislation permits the company to respond to fires outside of its own properties.
As it operates in emergency situations, Ruth says the technology it uses must be reliable, serviceable and simple.
“If things go wrong in the bush the crew must have a fair go at fixing it,” she says. “For us it’s not about being dazzled by technology and blindly adopting it. It’s about how does it fit in? Is it simple enough to work under very rough conditions?”
In the middle of summer when conditions are at their driest many of the roads and tracks HVP accesses with its vehicles get extremely dusty.
The dust according to Ruth can be worse than fog with visibility limited to a couple of metres at best.
“So if things are not dust proof and adaptable to those sort of conditions, they’ve got to be tough and you’ve got water involved so you’ve got to have something that is pretty resilient,” she says.
“We do keep an eye on the technology and where it’s appropriate we will adapt to it but it’s also about, for instance, having a manual override if say, the electronics doesn’t work or if dust gets in and this all drastically fails then you have another manual way of doing it which is pretty important for the protection of our people.”
Having integrated an in-truck navigational system, HVP is looking at integrating maps into the system as its resources span across the state and the company will dispatch its people between regions during major fires.
Reversing cameras are another necessary feature of the Isuzu vehicles given the crews operate trucks on the side of ravines in thickets of bushland and the equipment loads hamper the rearward vision especially in dense smoke.
All trucks come with crew protection systems, a spray system that envelopes the truck if it happens to get trapped in a burn over predicament explains Ruth.
“If a crew get caught in fire the spray system ejects water over the truck and there’s also radiant heat shields inside the cab,” she says.
“These are a series of very thick curtains with an aluminium foil on the outside to protect the crew from radiant heat.”
Tested in the bush, where trucks have been subjected to a burn over, the system has been developed between the fire services and CSIRO.
The newer trucks use a one button start to activate the pump sprays.
Some of the other features designed to accommodate the most urgent of scenarios include electric rewind hose reels and LED lighting fitted to the new truck lockers. Efficiencies in life and death situations are essential.
Ruth grew up on a farm in Pyalong. Located in central Victoria, the tiny, one pub town, with its sun-bleached picket fences often gathering disintegrating gum leaves, is in summer, ever present with reminders of the threat of fire.
It’s here she developed her passion for science and working in the outdoors, which she has since brought to a career in silviculture and forestry.
She says even though the big brunt of fires lasts between one and two days it’s the clean-up, requiring 70 people and up to 14 bulldozers, that takes weeks.
To that extent, HVP will encircle the suppressed fire with a track as close as possible to the burnt edge.
Sometimes that means putting more fire back into the area to do a backburn to ensure there’s more ‘black’ inside the fire edge so there’s nothing further to burn – otherwise pockets of unburnt country can flare up when the conditions deteriorate.
According to Ruth, 95 per cent of firefighting is not actually putting water on flames.
“It’s about finding the hot spots in the dirt and the dust and the charcoal and making sure that they’re out and finding the hollow trees that are still burning and attending to those,” she says.
“Most people see firefighting as the flames and the big red trucks but it’s the dirty dusty work behind there that really takes a long time and is essentially the biggest part of fire-fighting especially forest firefighting where you’ve got so many different complex fuels to consider compared to grass fires.”
(Image: Ruth Ryan, HVP Plantations Corporate Fire Manager).