Protecting catchments from fire
Melbourne is one of the few cities in the world fortunate enough to draw most of its water from uninhabited forested catchments. Managing the 140,000 hectares of protected catchments requires a vigilant and proactive approach to protecting these areas from bushfires.
The 2006/07 fire season began a month earlier than usual in October 2006 because of the drought conditions. Bushfires subsequently burnt on simultaneous fronts across Victoria.
Melbourne Water responded to the early declaration of the formal fire danger period by:
- Recruiting 52 project firefighters to supplement the 30 permanent trained employees
- Funding a 1300-litre water-bombing helicopter to be on standby for the catchments
- Bringing forward pre-season maintenance of fire equipment and clearing of access roads around the catchments
- Creating 170 kilometres of firebreaks around the catchments.
Melbourne Water usually spends about $2.4 million a year in fire preparations and management but this was boosted to $3 million in 2006/07 because of the prolonged fire season.
In January 2007, the former Minister for Water, Environment and Climate Change, John Thwaites, announced that permanent firebreaks would be built in strategic locations to protect catchments for the long term. Melbourne Water is working with the Department of Sustainability and Environment, the Country Fire Authority and Parks Victoria on an ongoing basis to determine the location of permanent firebreaks and manage the impact of clearing and road building activities.
Between 14 February and 21 February 2007, there were 12 lightning strikes in the catchments sparking fires, all of which were quickly controlled as a result of early detection by Melbourne Water employees in the observation towers in the catchments.
Ultimately, while bushfires burnt more than one million hectares in the Gippsland and Alpine regions, the water catchments were largely unaffected, with 16 fires covering a total of 41 hectares.
A team of Melbourne Water employees traveled to some of the bushfire-affected areas and met Gippsland Water colleagues to learn how they responded to the crisis. These lessons will be built into planning for the 2007/08 bushfire season.
Following a review of the risks to the water supply system of major bushfires in Melbourne’s protected catchments this year, a five-year research program will be undertaken to assess the likelihood and extent of bushfires and their impacts on water quality and quantity.
Melbourne Water will work with the School of Forest and Ecosystem Science at Melbourne University to develop this program, which will begin in 2007/08.
The research will build on long-term research already completed, which has examined the impacts of fires and logging in catchments on water yield and quality.