“I expected to do a few years here and move on,” he says, but the mountainous terrain and tall trees have provided so many professional challenges and satisfactions, there’s been no need to move.
“I started out as a young buck, overseeing logging contractors in the forest,” says Ben. “They were hard bushworking types and I had to learn quickly about personnel management. I had to get them to do what I wanted them to do, even though they understood the forest far better than I did. They taught me so much – passed on a lot of local knowledge.
“I also learnt a huge amount from the older forest overseers not only about the forest but about how fire behaves in different fuel and forest types and regeneration burning after logging. You quickly pick up the differences in forest types and how they react to fire. You learn to assess how fires behave in a variety of terrain and weather conditions; whether they’ll spot a long distance away or not.”
Ben is now the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) district manager for land and fire in Swifts Creek. The area encompasses mid to low foothills of public land with mixed fuel types, then moves over the Great Divide into the alpine area with alpine vegetation and tall ash species. Many mountain tracks are steep side cuts with sheer drops.
“Local knowledge doesn’t give you all the answers, but it gives you a big head start when responding to forest fires and planning prescribed burns,” he continues. “It’s not that fire becomes predictable – you can always get caught out – but you can visualise ahead and imagine what the fire might do given the forecast.
“While living in the area, you learn a lot about your community and what their expectations are. You get to know the community leaders and accumulate knowledge through them. You also pick it up through people you work with on a daily basis. You learn about their strengths and how they respond to various stresses, so you’ve got a full picture of what your response capacity really is.”
Ben saw plenty of action as an incident controller during the local campaign fires of 2002-03 and 2006-07 where he often worked alongside Ensay brigade’s Mack Stagg. In 2003, the fire had a 120 kilometre front and burnt through Omeo township twice.
“It was a fire with enormous destructive potential,” says Ben. “We recognised that the people making decisions during those fires needed local knowledge. We set up divisions of local CFA crews for asset protection where the fire came out of the forest into freehold land. We knew that local priorities would make or break how much life and property was saved.
“We told long time captains like John Cook of Benambra brigade and Graham Symons of Omeo, ‘You’re now calling the shots. You put your people where they’re going to do best and then report up to us in the IMT. All our guys are reporting to you.’ The captains rallied their people and DSE joined in with CFA under Cookie [John Cook] and Symo [Graham Symons]. Their local knowledge of the town and the intricacies of the community gave us the best chance. It limited the number of assets lost and allowed us to get through those dangerous situations without loss of life.”
Ben agrees that it was a clear demonstration of Mission Command in action. “Decisions have to be made very quickly based on what you’re seeing,” he says, “so it’s the people on the ground who can make the decisions. That might be the senior person in the slip on. We pushed authority to make decisions down the line. Time didn’t allow for anything else.”
Interoperability was also on show in the ICC, with a DSE operations officer in charge when the fire was in the forest. CFA’s Neil Bumpstead was initially the deputy operations officer but took over the lead role when the fire came out into freehold land. Mack Stagg was in the IMT during that time, not only providing liaison between the agencies but also a wealth of local knowledge.
“When we were in full blown asset protection mode,” explains Ben. We used the skills and local knowledge we had to the best of our ability. The swap worked really well.”
Ben emphatically agrees with Mack that local knowledge is vital in the ICC, starting with seemingly simple things like knowing where the keys are kept and how to start the generator – things that can leave a room of experts stuck.
“Local knowledge is also good value when you’re talking at a community meeting,” he says. “When you’re a living member of that community, what you say is far more accepted. I was on the radio a lot during the campaign fires and a local speaking makes it easier for the community to actually hear what you’re saying. And you know the local place names and can pronounce them properly!”
So local knowledge is complex and is accumulated over time by being embedded in a community. Ben believes that it can be passed on by offering support and guidance through burns and fires, and it helps having the circumstances or the right fire condition presented to you as living proof or a live lesson.
Ben’s view, looking back over many years of experience, is that while local knowledge may mean different things to different people, you are always better off with it than without it.
Many thanks to DSE in Swifts Creek for all photos.