Threefold increase in fuel reduction burns for Victoria

The arrival of autumn means fire crews are busy lighting fires instead of fighting them.

And there is an increased amount of country to burn this year before the fire season returns.

But determining where to burn to minimise risk is a complex task.

Following the Black Saturday fires which killed 173 people, the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission found ‘the amount of prescribed burning occurring in Victoria is inadequate’.

The Commission recommended an increased target of 390 000 hectares, or five per cent of public land to be burnt every year. That’s a three fold increase to what occurred before Black Saturday.

But the target did not specify which areas were to be burnt to minimise risk.

The Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) in Victoria is in charge of where to burn in the state’s prescribed burning program.

Executive Director of Fire and Emergency Management at DEPI, Lee Miezis said the department is in the process of working up to the five per cent target.

‘Last year we achieved 250 000 hectares and this year we are working towards a target of 260 000 hectares.’

Senior project officer in the Fire and Emergency Management Division at DEPI, Andy Ackland users computer simulation to predict the movement and intensity of bushfires.

‘We can actually visualise the spread of a bushfire across the landscape, see spot fires occurring several kilometres ahead of the main fire and we can also observe the convective updrafts in the bushfire’, Mr Ackland said.

Professor Michael Clarke from La Trobe University thinks a state-wide fuel reduction hectare-based target is a blunt instrument which can lead to perverse outcomes such as many remote places being burnt, but doing little to reduce risk to life and property.

‘The Mallee and Murray Goulburn account for about three per cent of ‘risk to life and property’ on a bad day,’ he says.

‘By contrast the areas around Port Phillip Bay make up 31 per cent of the risk but the actual places where burning is taking place doesn’t align with those percentages.’

Professor Clarke also worries prescribed burns can lead to a false sense of security.

‘There’s a great expectation in the public that the government will make us safer,’ he says.

‘If the forest around us has been burnt by government agencies and people think “we’re alright and we don’t need to do our bit,” this is a really dangerous situation.’

Professor Clarke said that living in flammable areas does not come without risk and prescribed burning is only part of the solution.

‘If they reached the 390 000 hectares annually, on average that would reduce the bushfire risk by 20 per cent.

‘I suspect the general public might expect prescribed burning to be better than that.’

He said the usefulness of fuel reduction burns are short lived with some habitats regenerating to high fuel load levels in three years.

‘It’s a short time frame which makes it a very intensive and expensive process and there are ecological consequences of burning repeatedly.

‘A balance needs to be drawn between the intolerance of people and their expectation of how much safer they can be made.

‘They might be intolerant of repeated prescribed burning because of the ecological damage it might do to the place they cherish.

‘There are people who say “I will take the risk and I prefer the aesthetic and the amenity of the bush around me.”

‘It’s a very complex conversation which has not taken place yet.’

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