Review of 5% burn target admits failure – plans for more effective risk reduction

The controversial hectare based burn target of 5% of public land annually was reviewed earlier this year by the Inspector General of Emergency Management. The findings and recommendations were released in April this year and the government is still to announce if it will adopt the recommendations.

The report looked into many aspects of the planned burns, which scored them on 12 separate areas including economic efficiency, impacts on different landscapes and risk reduction.  The current hectare based burn management failed with a 13/48 score. The proposed new risk-based management showed a 40/48 score for effectiveness. 

Across Victoria, the burns have been controversial, with huge concern over their effectiveness in a bushfire as well as the environmental impacts over such large areas annually.

The review recommend a shift from simply a burn target, to look at more effective measures to keep people and assets safe at the same time as looking after environmental values. 

“This is an overdue initiative by the Andrews Government and should be a win-win for all” said Jill Redwood from Environment East Gippsland. “If adopted it should mean a more cost effective fire risk plan across the state, people should feel safer with new methods of protecting lives and our wildlife and ecosystems can start to recover. This should include more targeted measures such as rapid attack, more water bombing capacity, focusing on flammable sources closer to human settlements rather than burning willy-nilly across millions of hectares simply to reach a figure”.

In 2013, Neil Comrie the Bushfire Royal Commission Implementation Monitor stated in his report that the 5% target was not achievable, affordable or sustainable. This was repeated in subsequent reports but ignored by the then Baillieu/Napthine Government. A quarter to a third of a million hectares were being burnt to varying degrees of severity every year as a result.

“A graph on page 11 of the report showed there was no correlation between the hectares burnt each year and the size of subsequent bushfires”, said Jill Redwood. “Many people have questioned this method from the beginning as merely a political placebo with no research or evidence to back it up”.

The review stated that a new risk based approach was: 

  • More efficient at achieving fuel management
  • Provides better incentives for shared responsibilities (not relying on a numbers game) and
  • More adaptive, transparent and effective.

“The old fire management policy gave the public a false sense of security in a bushfire. This was counter-productive when people’s safety is the priority”.

“There is also a welcome acknowledgment of the serious health and economic impacts from burn-off smoke. Those with respiratory illnesses and those who depend on tourism are major groups who have been terribly impacted.”

“The report talks of community preparedness, shared responsibility, improved rapid first-strike attack, fire shelters and evacuation. We would also like to see the government consider other Snowy River Mail planned burn photooptions such as remote heat sensing cameras installed at key points, enhancing the natural fire resistance of our forests and removing financial incentives to keep fires going.”

Modelling by DELWP estimates that the 5% burn target reduces bushfire risk to people by about 18%, whereas the risk-based approach could achieve a 30% risk reduction for the same cost.

The review received 127 written submissions from groups or individuals. Most were very concerned about the impacts the burns policy has had on the environment.  

“The review showed that under the criterion ‘ensure the resilience of natural ecosystems and their services’, the 5% burn target scores ZERO out of four. Under the proposed new approach, it scores three out of four.  Not only that, but it is also more effective at keeping people safe and the best return on money spent.

“The report also mentions the need to monitor water and air quality in relation to burns.  There is a need for more information, reporting, performance measurements and reviews, and in a way that is ‘accessible to the public’ the report says.

RMIT’s Mathematical and Geospatial Sciences School was engaged to carry out an independent analysis of the impact on the environment. Under the 5% target it said:

The primacy of the hectares burned target dis-incentivises incorporation of ecosystem resilience considerations… Ecosystem resilience can be actively harmed by large scale burns when they destroy micro-ecosystems and fauna lack alternative habitats within reach. Appendix 4, p11.

“So while the report states that there are many tools in the tool box and burning was a costly, relatively ineffective and environmentally destructive tool, it will still be part of annual fire safety measures”, said Jill Redwood.

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