BUSHFIRES: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Victoria changes tack on fuel-reduction burns
, April 17, 2010
The deaths of over 170 people in the Victorian bushfire tragedy of February 2009 has led to a change in policy by the state's Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), which is now trying to conduct large-scale burn-offs around Victoria.
Evidence given to the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission showed clearly that the failure to reduce fuel loads in state forests and national parks over recent decades contributed to the huge death toll and the extensive loss of property during the bushfires.
The 2009 bushfires burned over 400,000 hectares (ha). Although wildfires in some previous years burned larger areas, the 2009 fires occurred mainly in populated areas on the outer north-eastern fringe of Melbourne, causing heavy loss of life.
The DSE administers 7.4 million ha of Victoria, covering about one-third of the state. In recent years, its target for fuel-reduction burn-offs has been 130,000 ha, which is less than 2 per cent of the area under its control.
The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission heard evidence from both an expert panel and officers of the WA Department of Environment and Conservation, who said that up to 10 per cent of the bush should be burned annually, to minimise the danger of bushfires turning into wildfires.
This year, the DSE has begun an extensive program of autumn fuel-reduction burns across Victoria.
For the first time in years, smoke from prescribed burn-offs has caused smoke haze around Melbourne, and the Herald Sun
reported late in March that the DSE was conducting burn-offs covering 46,000 ha of forests, mainly in western and central Victoria and Gippsland. Over 100,000 ha have been burned since July 2009, but this is still far too little to impact on the bushfire threat facing the state.
There have been reports of prescribed burn-offs escaping containment lines in the Big Desert, in far western Victoria, and another near the town of Raglan. The escaped burn-offs are a sign of how vulnerable much of Victoria remains to bushfires.
The interim report of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was released in August 2009, but made no recommendations for a revision of DSE's inadequate prescribed burning program.
Instead, it concentrated on examining issues such as the effectiveness of emergency services and fire warnings, and the prevailing policy of encouraging residents in bushfire areas to "stay or go", which undoubtedly encouraged many people to believe that if they stayed to protect their homes from bushfires, they would be able to save them. In the event, the "stay or go" policy contributed to the heavy death toll of Black Saturday, February 7, 2009.
The interim report also found that, despite early warnings, the response by emergency services in Victoria to the emerging crisis was confused, that warnings were not given in time to communities in danger, that the emergency services website was not kept up to date, and that the emergency services, particularly the Country Fire Authority, were unaware of the advancing fire front on Black Saturday.
There is no doubt that the DSE has picked up that the royal commission will recommend that fuel-reduction burns are an essential component of the state's bushfire strategy, and should be substantially increased.
The DSE seems to be positioning itself to say that it has anticipated the findings of the royal commission by increasing the amount of prescribed burning in Victoria. However, its response to date is far less than what is needed to protect life and property.
Environmentalists, who for years have opposed fuel-reduction burns on the grounds that they damage the environment, have taken a new tack. The Greens, for example, now claim that they never opposed prescribed burning, but wanted a scientific evaluation of each burn conducted before it was approved, to ensure the survival of fauna and flora.
While this sounds reasonable, the fact is that these considerations have always been part of an intelligent fuel-reduction strategy, which must recognise that fires have been a natural feature of the bush, and it can be assumed that fauna and flora are adapted to survive low-to-moderate intensity fires.
Another line of attack, put forward by some environmental groups in central Victoria, is that the DSE should be setting fire to grass and weeds in close proximity to housing, rather than burning forests.
A spokesman for the groups said, "We cannot understand why DES fuel-reduction teams keep burning public forest blocks, when the dangerous areas closer to settlements are neglected." (Bendigo Advertiser
, March 24, 2010).
Another member claimed that the DSE had produced no research analysing the effect of fuel-reduction burns on central Victoria's box-ironbark forests. The groups had adopted the motto, "Hazards not Hectares", to emphasise the need for burns in high-risk areas, rather than large areas of bush.
However, an effective wildfire control strategy must attempt to control fires throughout the forests, without neglecting high-risk areas close to human habitation.