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Lessons not yet learned: a bushfire tragedy

06, March 2009

Max Rheese

Apart from the terrible human and animal suffering from the continuing bushfire crisis in Victoria, the tragedy of this event is the failure of public land managers to heed lessons already learned from past holocausts.

The extent of this horrific disaster - by far the worst Australia has experienced - has been magnified by indifference to basic rules of fire management, ignoring the wisdom of expert fire managers and political acquiescence to the pressure of city-based green lobby groups.

This week Australia has witnessed the fatal results of misguided green activism over three decades that is steeped in ideology rather than forest science. A dogged determination to oppose realistic prescribed burn targets has produced fuel loads in many parks and reserves that are a disaster waiting to happen.

To be sure, there were many other factors in play on Black Saturday that contributed to this unstoppable fire-storm. Weather on the day - as well as the preceding week - the effects of a ten-year drought, some climatic change over recent decades and many more houses in rural areas.

However, it is a fact that until public land managers and governments are held accountable for fire management practices on public land - as private landholders currently are - there will be further unnecessary loss of life due to recurring intense conflagrations such as those witnessed in 1939, 1943, 1962,1969,1977,1983, 2003 and 2006.

Numerous inquiries and the 1939 Stretton Royal Commission identified the core issues in adapting to fire in the Victorian landscape. The most fundamental of these and the criterion of forest management that we have the most control over is the level of fuel in the forest, yet the leverage that forest managers could have on potential fire-storms through fuel management is consistently cast aside. Judge Stretton stated: “Fire management should be the paramount consideration of the forest manager”. Clearly, this has not been the case in Victoria for decades.

Tom Griffiths in his book Forests of Ash recounts some of the evidence given at the Stretton Royal Commission by mountain graziers and sawmillers where they were hounded by the Forests Commission to stop their practice of cool-burning the bush on a regular basis. The people who lived and worked in the bush became fearful of the “dirty” bush that was a result. The thick, scrubby undergrowth that they regarded as a fire trap was all incinerated in the Black Friday fires of 1939.

Decades later the Victorian Auditor General noted in his report on fire management in 1992 that:

    … fuel reduction burnings had not been adequately implemented.

And in 2003 he noted that:

    … further work is needed in a number of critical areas [such as] increased focus on strategic management of hazard reduction on public land, to ensure that appropriate targets are set, resources are provided for their achievement and performance is monitored. However, there has been a consistent failure to achieve hazard reduction targets.

And ominously:

    At stake is the protection of human lives and homes, State forests, national parks and other public lands.

This is again highlighted in the all party Parliamentary Environment & Natural Resources Committee Inquiry into the Impact of Public Land Management Practices on Bushfires in Victoria which tabled its report five years later in June 2008 in the Victorian Parliament. This inquiry was initiated after the public outcry over the disastrous Alpine Fires and Great Divide Fire, in 2003 and 2006 respectively that collectively burnt over two million hectares of public land. In three years, these two fires incinerated more biodiversity values than all bushfires for the previous 150 years. Many areas show no signs of recovery.

The inquiry report states:

    On balance the Committee finds it is likely that the bushfires of 2002/03 and 2006/07 were both the result, and the most recent examples of inappropriate fire regimes. The Committee finds that an increase in prescribed burning across the landscape represents the best strategy for managing the risks that future bushfires pose to biodiversity and other natural assets …

    … The Committee finds that the frequency and extent of prescribed burning has been insufficient over a number of decades, for the preservation of ecological processes and biodiversity across the public land estate. An increase in the extent and frequency of prescribed burning for the enhancement of environmental values should therefore be a priority for the Department of Sustainability and Environment and its partner agencies.

It seems we have the need to learn the same lessons over and over at the expense of lives in our rural communities and the environmental values we seek to protect.

The primary recommendation of this parliamentary inquiry, chaired by a government member and former minister, is: “That in order to enhance the protection of community and ecological assets, the Department of Sustainability and Environment increase its annual prescribed burning target from 130,000 hectares to 385,000 hectares.”

It is therefore incomprehensible that the Minister for the Environment, Gavin Jennings, should stand in the Victorian Parliament on December 4, 2008, after the mountain of evidence presented at this inquiry demonstrating the level of fuel reduction in Victorian forests was manifestly inadequate, and state that:

    Hectare-based targets are not considered to be the best way of measuring effectiveness of the planned burning program. There is a need to begin to move away from hectare-based targets and start thinking about reduction of fuel loads across the board, understanding community sensitivity to planned burning and better mirroring nature through the effective use of fire as a land management tool.

Same old story. Numerous bushfire scientists, researchers, rural communities, Judge Stretton and the recent parliamentary inquiry all call for a quantum, measurable increase in prescribed burning and the department and Minister says “We know better”. There is nothing in fire management in this state in the last 20 years that would indicate they know better than the experts - only death, destruction and despair as a result of lessons not learned.

In the same address to parliament, the Environment Minister stated that funding for fire suppression had increased from $30 million to $100 million in the last ten years and - wait for it - funding for fire prevention had been lifted to $10 million. Tim Flannery this week in the media reminded us of an old saying, “He who owns the fuel, owns the fire”.

This difficulty in managing public land with some degree of environmental integrity has not deterred governments from increasing the size of the national park estate at the urging of green lobby groups. Almost without exception, new areas are gazetted as national parks only after campaigning - not by the community - but by the environmental lobby. From just 276,343 hectares in 1975 to 3,230,741 hectares in 2005, more than a ten-fold increase that corresponds to rising community dissatisfaction with the management of public land.

Communities all over the state that have suffered from wildfire in the last decade have a right to seriously question the management regime of public land when the Auditor General has stated the land managers have consistently failed to meet their own prescribed burn targets.

Another aspect to this debate is the tragedies that are potentially yet to unfold.

The tiny township of Barmah in the red gum forests along the Murray River has been fighting to get meaningful fire prevention work undertaken by the Department of Sustainability and Environment [DSE] in the 29,000 hectare Barmah forest that comes right to the edge of town.

After being told that local landholders would not be able to undertake controlled grazing in the forest for eight weeks to reduce the chest high weeds and grasses, as has been the practice for 150 years, they wrote to DSE seeking fire prevention works by them as required under the Forests Act.

The whole township gathered in the main street of Barmah on the morning of November 17, 2008 to protest the state of the forest and the lack of fuel reduction work by DSE.

Without any response by the start of summer, the community collectively purchased 35 cattle and illegally drove them into the forest to reduce the fuel load. After the threat by the community to seek a court order under Section 62 of the Forests Act, requiring the department to carry out fire prevention works departmental work teams descended on the forest within 24 hours.

After a fortnight of grading tracks and a two-metre wide firebreak and mulching vegetation alongside the access tracks, they left without reducing any of the chest high grasses and weeds growing in the camping areas along the river that had been the primary concern of the community. This is an example of the disgraceful way a rural community has been - and still is - put in danger by the failure of the land managers to carry out their duty as required under legislation.

Barmah is only one of many communities along the edge of the Barmah forest in this predicament. Most are on the south side of the forest so if a fire starts in the forest they will be in the direct path of a firestorm racing out of the forest.

To add insult to the injury of poor public land management suffered by communities along the Murray River, the Brumby government declared on December 30, 2008 that 95,000 hectares in four new national parks will be gazetted in the red gum forests along the Murray River later this year.

Rural communities, recreational four-wheel drivers, fishermen, hunters, graziers, campers, bird watchers, horse riders and many others who live, work and visit public land are tired of learning the lessons that come with more public land being consigned to a regime of minimal management and, in many cases, a decline in environmental values.

National parks, state parks and conservation reserves now account for 55 per cent of all public land in Victoria, yet most environment groups, ministers and the media confidently state that biodiversity in Victoria is in decline. How does this work? If we have had a ten-fold increase in parks and reserves over the last 30 years and their primary purpose is to protect biodiversity the model of management surely must be flawed.

It is time for a new paradigm in land management for Victoria that embraces active management of public land and embraces the wisdom of Judge Stretton, “Fire management must be the paramount consideration of the forest manager”.

No more rhetoric, no more ideology, no more lessons paid for with innocent lives.

Published in On Line Opinion 16 February 2009

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