State fire policy leaving us vulnerable….  again
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State fire policy leaving us vulnerable…. again

The State Government has again left us at great risk with this fire season approaching, clearly not having learned the lessons of 2019/20.
Just four short years after we should have received the lesson of a lifetime with fires that burned 1.6 million ha and saw 396 houses destroyed despite mild weather in the fortnight after ignition, here we are extremely vulnerable again. Here is why:
Following the 2009 bushfires, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission recommended a minimum of 5% of the forest be fuel reduced each year - even though some called for 6-8% in line with WA practice.
These were findings based on the advice of pre-eminent bushfire experts.
In support of this, Parliament’s own Environment and Natural Resources Committee earlier reported: “A minimum average of 5 per cent of the public land estate, should be adopted as the annual prescribed burning target”.
The Liberal National government accepted the recommendation and were workign towards it. However, in 2015 the new Victorian Labor Government decided to head down a different path by establishing a new inquiry to come up with a result more palatable to what it wanted.
It produced a new approach that basically only focussed fuel reduction burning around townships and assets - and there was to be much less (if any) in the wider bush.
It was labelled “Safer Together” and Minister Lisa Neville said at the time: “Our new approach is about doing more to reduce the risk of bushfire, and knowing what we do is more effective.”
Four years later, “Safer Together” oversaw one of the biggest fires in the state’s history and it was/is a policy that clearly made us more vulnerable.
Apart from ignoring the recommendations of a Royal Commission, the reality is that many long-time locals saw this event coming. They knew that under “Safer Together”, fuel loads had reached levels they had not seen before in their lifetimes.
These people, who came to my office and stopped me in the street, were former firefighters, timber industry and bush workers and even State Government Departmental staff.
They said we were going to have a mega-fire and it was because we had allowed fuel loads to get out of control.
As a result, throughout 2018/19, I made a series of media comments and speeches in Parliament around the reality this was going to occur in the next year or two – there is no other possible outcome. In fact, one of these Comment Column’s in 2019 was dedicated to this.
It’s not rocket science. If you allow fuel loads to build to record levels in a region of predominantly bush that has summers with lightning strikes and hot northerlies – it can only ever end one way.
I am not a climate change sceptic and it will become a big factor in the years to come, but the reality is it was only a part player in this event with average temperatures in Victoria having risen by just 0.8°C since the 1950s.
The bottom line is the Royal Commission recommended a 5% annual burn target (equal to 390,000ha) and while this was never achieved, it was resulting in much more being done.
In both 2012/13 and 2014/15, over 235,000ha was fuel reduction burned in Victoria, but when we got “Safer Together” it dropped to just on 100,000ha per year being burned (40% of what was being done). Then the figure dropped again in the lead up to 2019/20.
Now we are on the verge again. Those same people with the knowledge base are giving the same warnings. A drive through the bush anywhere east of Lakes Entrance or north of Bairnsdale will reveal massive fuel loads.
The fallen and dead trees from the 2019/20 event and the explosion of black wattle and scrub in the landscape – it has left us very vulnerable again.
While we let this fuel build up happen, regardless of climate change temperature rises, it will only end in major fires, if not this summer, then in the ones immediately after – there is no other possible outcome that can result and it should be noted climate change will only make it worse.
We need to be doing more burns to offer more protections to our communities and the environment. Cool controlled burns are far better for the environment than out of control exceptionally hot burns that destroy everything and leave a moonscape of dead plants and animals – as we saw in 2019/20.
The state’s current targets on risk reduction are not enough to keep us safe - they are woefully inadequate.
University of Melbourne Associate Professor, Kevin Tolhurst, just two weeks ago said the “legislation of restricting fire has been counterproductive to a large extent”.
In paraphrasing his comments, Dr Tolhurst said we really need to change our whole philosophy of having fire in the landscape.
He strongly supports reintroducing more low intensity fire in the landscape – he is saying what the wise old heads in the community are saying.
As others have pointed out, we alter the balance of the bush by putting out fires from causes like lightning strikes in the summer – fires that would otherwise burn much larger areas over months - but then when it is cooler, we do not restore the balance by burning a commensurate amount, not even close. So, fuel loads build and build and then the dam wall breaks.
You can get away with it for a while, but it always catches up and the result is what we got in 2019/2020, 2007 and 2003 – major fires.
Dr Tolhurst summed this up when he said “we should be going in and burning areas as often as we can to break up the landscape, so it’s not much of a stretch from the way traditional owners used to use fire in the landscape”.
“As they moved through the landscape, they would ignite areas that were flammable as they passed through and they passed through often enough so that over time they would continue to burn the most flammable parts.
“Then you’re left with the less flammable areas that would burn later in the season”.
Another of Australia’s leading bushfire scientists and former head of the CSIRO bushfire unit, Phil Cheney, said the residual risk platform (eg “Safer Together”) was a “load of bulls---”.
He said residual risk was a measure developed by people with no on-ground experience running computer algorithms they think are true.
“If you look at risk, what you can control, fuel load is the only thing that matters,” Dr Cheney said.
Some doubt the worth of fuel reduction burns. A map of the 2019/20 fires clearly shows their effectiveness. It clearly displays the many locations where the fire front was stopped when it hit an area recently fuel reduction burned.
One of the best examples is at Painted Line Track near Orbost, where on a hot northerly day, the fire was stopped when it hit a recently burned area – there is some terrific aerial shots of how effective this was (see picture).
In recent times some metro-based Government members have also questioned whether burning the wider bush is ineffective.
As just one example to refute this was the inquiry into the local Tostaree fire in 2011 which showed the network of previously conducted fuel reduction burns played a key role in containing this fire which burnt on a day of temperatures over 40 degrees and gale force winds in an area with difficult access.
In the late afternoon, the fire reached an area recently fuel reduction burned which lowered its intensity and it was able to be controlled. If this area of wider bush had not been fuel reduction burned, communities such as Simpsons Creek and Newmerella could well have been lost.
In addition, I think the best summary came from a firefighter by the name of John Fisher, who was speaking at a bushfires inquiry and stated:
“The opponents of fuel reduction burning fail to realise the operational difficulty of fighting a wildfire in extreme conditions. The only option or tool that we have available is the manipulation of fuel in the fire triangle.” (When he was talking about the fire triangle, he was talking about the three things that fire needs – fuel, oxygen and ignition.)
“The only one that we have control over as a community and a society is fuel. Even in a fuel reduced area on extreme days there is no question that fires can burn through - but the moderating effect of that fuel reduction activity is quite profound and is quite useful in the periods of the day when those extreme fire behaviours wane.” (He was talking about our Tostaree situation).
“We use that through the nightshift to effect further fuel reduction burnings or back-burns, as you have seen, and that provides us with a safe and effective means to control fires on our estate.”
These wider bush burns are not being done under “Safer Together”, so again, we are not safer.
You cannot dictate to a fire by telling it where and when to burn and you cannot control the weather, so you need the landscape controlled.
In Victoria, the Government is only achieving a bushfire residual risk target of 70% and this is with substantial wildfire added into its figures to meet their own targets.
By including wildfire to reach their own fuel reduction targets, the Victorian Government also seems to assume high intensity fire over summer delivers the same result as a low intensity fire. It does not. As many experts state, unlike low intensity prescribed fire, high intensity wildfire results in impenetrable tall dense understory often dominated by flammable species, which is what we have now. Cool burns do not leave this unwanted legacy. In addition, high intensity wildfires have devastating impacts on the flora and fauna in the bush and denude the bush over wide areas leading to soil erosion and river pollution. Cool burns do not have these impacts either.
So, to summarise, the government is including in its fuel reduction burn figures the areas burnt in wildfire it says it is protecting us against. Fires which then in turn leave us with a more flammable landscape afterwards.
This is what we have now, as the lack of effort to address issues post the very hot 2019/20 fires has left us very vulnerable again with high fuel loads everywhere.
The Premier and Minister should go and inspect the areas burnt by the 2019-20 wildfire in East Gippsland and see the outcomes their failed “Safer Together” policy has delivered. They should also talk to the locals and fire experts who are warning us.
In addition to all this, the government has destroyed our native timber industry, the men and women who were the first line of defence and on call as first responders when fire threatened.
And, on top of that, it has declared war on our CFA and the result has been the loss of 6,500 operational and support volunteers since 2015. The CFA is full of local champions who do their best and their best is good, but they need help when required.
The loss of members has meant a loss in surge capacity (CFA vols from other areas who come to our assistance in our time of need). This was highlighted in 2020 when the call went out and 70 strike teams were needed in East Gippsland, but only 17 could be mustered.
And Dan just tells us we’re “Safer Together”.

20 September 2023