I’ve just got back from a week in the Victorian High Country, amid warnings in the media that fuel loads were high across Victoria and that land managers had not burnt anywhere near their prescribed targets for the annual burn-off period. By the time you read this, we’ll be in the middle of another fire season… let’s hope it’s not a bad one!
The matter of reducing the bushfire risk and identifying the quantity of our public land subject to fuel reduction burning each year are contentious topics that refuse to go away.
The current Victorian government last year decided to scrap the target of 5 per cent of public land burnt each year in controlled burns, even though this was considered the minimum recommended by the Royal Commission set up in the wake of the 2009 Black Saturday fires that wreaked so much havoc in Victoria.
The new system being adopted is of ‘risk reduction’ in fire danger areas close to human habitation, with no mention of how much or how many controlled burns will be set to save life and property. It harks back to a ‘complete protection’ policy in place when forests were devastated by the 1939 and later fires.
The Vic government’s new strategy was challenged by one of Australia’s leading fire experts and former CSIRO bushfire scientist David Packham who came out in an article in The Australian newspaper, calling for at least a doubling of prescribed burns in the state to 10 or 12 per cent of the public land area. That has been basically ignored, with government departments not even reaching the desired risk reduction targets.
And with all the red tape and prescribed procedures that has to now happen before a prescribed burn takes place, it is extremely hard to see the land managers ever reaching the fire reduction targets whichever ones they use in the future.
In NSW, the situation is much the same, and while they don’t have a set target to burn, the fire authorities and local land managers are regularly under public pressure to conduct more extensive controlled burns.
Still, such fire reduction burns are no panacea for bushfire control; they are just one tool authorities can use to reduce the risk of an out-of-control bushfire. And while fuel reduction burns may not halt bushfires under severe conditions, they do have some moderating effect on the fire and allow for easier control when conditions improve.
It seems to me, though, that the threat of bushfires will remain with us forever and it is only a matter of time before another devastating fire ravages our bushland. In the meantime, while there’s been plenty of publicity and advice for homeowners, especially those living in suburban and regional bushfire-prone regions to protect themselves from fires (www.myfireplan.com.au), for travellers and campers caught up in a bushfire, the safety info isn’t as easy to find.
Just last year while working on Hema Maps new guide to the Victorian High Country, I was forced to change plans three times because of fast-moving grass fires closing major roads and even a highway, while a relatively small but intense bushfire up near Tom Groggin had me looking for a new route south through the mountains. It can get pretty scary!
Nowadays, most states have online fire warnings and apps for your phone that detail and warn of bushfires – just Google, ‘bushfire warning’ for the state you are interested in.
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