THE man charged with monitoring the state government’s response to the Black Saturday royal commission says a target to burn 5 per cent of Victoria’s public land every year to ease bushfire risk must be reconsidered.
In his final report Bushfire Royal Commission Implementation Monitor Neil Comrie says the state’s burning program should instead focus on protecting high-risk fire areas and public safety rather than simply meeting a target.
Mr Comrie – a former Victoria Police chief commissioner – also urges an end to delays in rolling out community fire refuges.
He says there is still only one designated community fire refuge in Victoria, more than three years after the Black Saturday fires killed 173 people.
Mr Comrie also found some Neighbourhood Safer Places – buildings or spaces designated within a community that may afford protection from radiant heat during a bushfire – were inappropriate on safety grounds.
Overall, Mr Comrie finds the state government has made good progress in responding to Black Saturday, with almost all of the royal commission’s recommendations implemented or in train.
The 5 per cent burn target – which aims for 390,000 hectares of public land to be burnt every year – was a recommendation of the royal commission.
The Baillieu government has struggled to meet burn targets amid heavy rain in recent years.
A number of scientific experts have questioned the effectiveness of the targets, saying they result in large uninhabited areas being burnt just to meet milestones and doing little to protect homes and families.
”It is imperative that the objectives of the planned burning program address the royal commission’s primary focus that the protection of human life and the safety of communities is paramount,” Mr Comrie writes.
”The Monitor concurs with the royal commission in this matter and advocates that the planned burning program be strategically focused on addressing high-risk areas rather than on meeting the broader hectare burning target.”
Minister for Bushfire Response Peter Ryan told The Age the government would consider Mr Comrie’s advice on the 5 per cent burn target.
”I see the logic of what he argues and we will give it due consideration,” he said.
Mr Ryan defended the delays in establishing community fire refuges, saying the government had to start from scratch on regulatory and design conditions.
He said there was money to fund new refuges and work was under way with councils to identify sites. He said he wanted the first new refuges built by or early into the next bushfire season.
La Trobe University Professor Michael Clarke – who was called as an expert witness on fire ecology at the 2009 Bushfire Royal Commission – said: ”When the next really big fire happens, people won’t be asking government ‘Did you meet the 5 per cent target?’, they will ask ‘Did you do the burning in the key areas that really reduced risk to life and property?”’