Victoria’s bushfire management program flawed, puts lives at risk

Land at low risk of bushfires has been set alight to fulfil the target of a state program while high-risk areas have been missed, expert says.

In a submission to the Andrews government’s review of the state’s program, La Trobe University professor Mike Clarke said the current “blanket” approach to burning 5 per cent of public land annually was also endangering several wildlife species to the point of extinction.

“It’s a very blunt instrument to achieve a risk reduction and has led to some perverse outcomes,” he said. “Targeting high-population areas is expensive, time-consuming and tricky. To do that safely is very labor intensive.

The Mallee region, which is home to less than 3 per cent of the state’s at-risk population, has been repeatedly targeted for planned burns in recent years, with up to 17 per cent of the program being held in that area.

The 5 per cent annual rolling target was a key recommendation from the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission held after the Black Saturday tragedy. The 2009 bushfires killed 173 Victorians and destroyed 2133 houses.

Both major parties supported the 5 per cent target but that may be dumped after Environment Minister Lisa Neville asked the Inspector-General for Emergency Management to conduct a review of performance targets for a future bushfire fuel management program on public land.

The suggestion that there is a direct link between planned burns of more land and reducing the risk from bushfire was flawed, the La Trobe University report stated.

“There is potential for remote areas of natural vegetation to be targeted for large burns because the very lack of people and infrastructure minimises the risks posed by escaped planned burns.

“These do little to increase safety to communities and are also more likely to do harm ecological harm.”

Professor Clarke said the Mallee emu-wren and black-eared miner were being considerably affected, because their natural habitat was being constantly burned.

Many experts have made submissions in recent weeks, arguing against the current system. Former CSIRO bushfire scientist David Packham said this month that fuel-reduction burns should be doubled or even tripled to reduce high levels of forest fuel across the state. He said that level has built up over the past 30 years because of “misguided green ideology”, political failure and mismanagement.

The Victorian National Park Association also wants the government to approach a risk-management system as opposed to the current hectare-based system. Group spokesman Phillip Ingamells said the current “simple” system “doesn’t work well for public safety or for protection of many native species”.

The Bushfires Royal Commission Implementation Monitor, Neil Comrie, has also pushed for a dumping of the target. In his 2013 report, he warned the 390,000 hectare target “may not be achievable, affordable or sustainable”.

The Inspector-General for Emergency Management is expected to deliver his report by the end of this month. Any recommended changes will not affect the department’s planned burning program for 2014-2015.


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