Properties need to be prepared now before the fire danger period begins, fire chiefs say.
While conditions look good now, spring growth and shifting weather could lead to another dangerous summer.
This year, the fourth major fire in the Ballarat district ignited in April, much later than expected.
While authorities are putting their plans into action, it will still come down to landholders, especially those with properties near bushland or forests, to do their part and prevent fire risks.
District 15 operations manager Brett Boatman said to expect the fire danger period to be declared close to Ballarat Cup Day, which is about average for the area.
"Where we sit, and my district takes in Hepburn, Moorabool, Golden Plains - most of it - and City of Ballarat, we've had a pretty good winter," he said.
"We've had average to above average rainfall - I'm working on the bogged tractor index, and we've had a lot of bogged tractors out there in paddocks - and that means, for us, we're expecting the fire danger period, which is when we declare restrictions, to be what we'd call average, somewhere around the first part of December or late November."
He noted there were lessons learned from the fires last year, which saw one every month through the summer and into autumn.
"It's really significant, we're not normally that busy, and last year wasn't a super dry year for us, it was all about Gippsland, but we still had the Buninyong fire just before Christmas, the Hepburn-Mannings Road fire at the end of January, the Bunkers Hill fire out in Haddon in mid-March, and in April we had the Mount Clear fire," he explained.
"Overall, we lost two homes and about 35 sheds last summer, communities lost those.
"What we're seeing is we don't need a fire that'll going to burn thousands of hectares and run for many days to do a lot of damage."
He described the Bunkers Hill fire as being like a "tornado in a caravan park".
"(It was) small landholdings, two or five to 10 acres, varying levels of community preparedness, a warm day but not a hot day, but an especially windy day in late summer, and ignition from powerlines," he said.
"It was dangerous, for community and for our people, it was very extreme fire danger and behaviour, it was very erratic."
Based on this, he said landholders should begin to remove long grass and get rid of bonfire piles now.
"People have the burn pile in the paddock, they're ready to have everyone around for a beer and barbecue and burn the pile, then the fire danger period gets declared before they expect it, so we're saying if you've got that pile of things to burn, get it done early," Mr Boatman said.
"I'm saying get it done before Ballarat Show Day (November 9)."
Council inspectors will soon be checking properties for fire-readiness as well, he added.
Forest Fire Management Victoria is also reviewing fuel loads in the district and getting early spring burns done in risky areas - Midlands district manager Jasmine Filmer said project crews were beginning to arrive, and other initiatives, like the fire watchtower program and water point development, were under way.
"For us, it's about making sure that we maximise the opportunities when they're there," she said.
"We've got those couple of burns under our belt, and potentially there'll be another spring burn, but the spring program won't be big, the majority of it will be focused on autumn when we have more stable conditions.
"We haven't formally kicked off the slashing program, that's where people see us out with tractors in the forest, that includes slashing of verges and other tracks through the forested areas, and would also include mowing in areas like Crown land, township blocks, and verges elsewhere.
"The trick is, we don't want to start too early, because then we get more growth and we end up having to redo that as well, so it's a timing run with that stuff."
The Mount Clear fire, which threatened pine plantations close to homes, was a good example of the chain of command working well in an emergency, she added - firefighters from the Hancock plantations and FFMV worked with CFA crews to establish control over the fire quickly.
"It was late in the season - when that was occurring, we had done planned burning in the days prior and we had scheduled planned burns for Trentham the following day," she said.
"That day was warm and windy, but the day following was perfect conditions for a planned burn, so we delivered a planned burn at Trentham in a really high risk environment but in conditions that were very favourable."
The full aerial firefighting fleet will be available, as well as surge capacity and night firebombing crews.
The plantation crews are also ready to roll - Hancock Victoria Plantations maintains a private firefighting team in the summer, which corporate fires manager Ruth Ryan described as a "CFA brigade in its own right".
"There's two tankers and five quick attack utes stationed around the Ballarat area, which respond to fires on and off our land," she said.
"We take on additional crew over the summer, we have a base firefighting capacity of around 20 people during the weekdays, and people on standby over weekends."
The company is working closely with fire authorities on new initiatives, she added, helping to plan ahead for the summer.
"Some of the things we're getting involved in on a more broad scale are using computer modelling to identify risk areas, and we use that to highlight potentially where we might work with FFMV to identify areas where fuel management would have the best effect, especially in protecting our plantations," she said.
The district's CFA brigades - all 61 of them, and their 120 vehicles - will soon begin extra training, focusing on personal safety and situational awareness while out at fires.
"We have a tree hazard awareness training package that all of our people go through before summer," Mr Boatman explained.
"We're also encouraging people to know their procedures around entrapment, if they do get caught in a burnover - there was one in Queensland, and at the Scotsburn fire we had three entrapments that day.
"It's something we do see pop up and we're encouraging all of our members to refresh their entrapment drills so they understand what the procedures are if they're caught in that situation.
"Everyone has a minimum level of training on the fire truck and we're re-emphasising that, so we're expecting that every person who gets on a fire truck and goes to a fire this summer will have done those three things."
That emphasis on safety is being echoed across the state - in a statement, Victorian emergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp said multi-agency briefings had begun to make sure people know the risks and are prepared to respond.
"This includes briefings in Ballarat, Ararat and Horsham, for emergency management personnel," he said.
"We are also focused on the health and safety of our responders and emergency managers, so that they are able to continue to protect and respond to the community in emergencies.
"Each year it is clear that summer is not just about fire alone, it is also about flooding, storms, and other emergencies. Each year we ask the community to also begin their preparedness works, taking action to complete preparations early. This year is no different.
"While emergency management agencies are preparing, it's also important the community understands their own risk and is actively preparing. This is a shared responsibility."
On the ground, the focus is on forested areas and the "interface" between the bush and pastoral land.
"We've had plenty of examples where they might be grass fires but they're having significant impacts, and if that's moving out of or into a forest where we've got homes, then they're really tricky ones to deal with," Ms Filmer said.
Mr Boatman agreed.
"There's a place called Wheatsheaf just east of Daylesford, there's 200-odd landholders on an area of bush that's been subdivided and people live right in the middle of it," he said.
"We've got a very proactive campaign around engaging with that community, and we're also looking, under a policy called Safer Together which we do with FFMV, to help landholders manage their blocks of land out there through burning and other means.
"If you wrap around from Haddon and Smythes Creek, all the way around Smythesdale, Napoleons, the south of Ballarat across to Buninyong and Scotsburn, and across to almost Dunnstown, that area, you think about how much bush and how much interface - then if you go up from Creswick to Smoky Town over towards Newlyn, skip over into the Wombat (Forest), Daylesford, Trentham, Blackwood, there's lots of places where there's interface.
"That's why preparation is key."
There are plenty of resources on the CFA website for landowners, he added, and no excuses for not checking it out now.
"I'm a landowner on the outskirts of Ballarat, I've got 10 acres and I know what it all looks like - the conversation and thinking needs to start now," he said.
"Within communities, landowners, families, neighbours, they all need to start thinking about 'what can I start to do now to minimise my risk?'"
- Planning a burnoff? Phone the hotline on 1800 668 511
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