THE Education Department has renewed the controversy over Victoria's response to bushfire risks by ordering 27 primary schools in the Dandenongs and Yarra Valley to clear trees from their grounds.
In notices sent to the schools last week, the department said each had a school building assigned as a "fire refuge" so all trees within 15 metres, and potentially up to 40 metres, were to be removed during school holidays beginning Monday.
Nicola Stairmand, council president at one of the affected schools, Badger Creek Primary, said the order to remove trees came without notification or consultation.
Ms Stairmand said the school, which recently won an award for its Landcare program, wanted to discuss the department's expert advice that the trees were going to be a fire threat.
"Our primary concern is the safety of the children. There is so much conflicting advice on the issue of trees. It's such an emotive issue whether to cut down trees or to keep them there. We have a lot of trees on the site and they provide a lot of shade," said Ms Stairmand.
"We've just been told this is happening. You don't have a choice. We just feel the school community has not been consulted sufficiently. It's going to completely change the school visually. We have had no say in it, and there's been no time allowed for consultation."
The State Government recently angered environmental groups by broadening home owner rights to clear trees from their properties and fence lines across the state. The Bushfire Royal Commission was told that trees can diminish fire threats to buildings by slowing the wind that drives ember attacks and protecting structures from radiant heat.
The order to remove trees surrounding the designated fire refuge - the school gymnasium - comes despite the trees being surrounded by paved and asphalted areas with no undergrowth.
David Blair, a parent at the school, said improvements planned to make the gymnasium more fire-resistant were welcomed, but it was unclear whether trees without undergrowth posed a fire risk. He said the trees had been strategically placed to shade key areas where children played.
The department said expert assessments of the school fire refuges had included removal of vegetation that posed a threat.
Education Minister Bronwyn Pike said the Government would work with schools to ensure they had a chance to review the expert advice, but the refuges would be "decommissioned" if the vegetation was not removed.
"Our Government will not compromise on child safety," said Ms Pike.
"This vegetation removal does not apply to the whole school site, only the area surrounding the fire refuge."
Meanwhile, the Department of Sustainability and Environment reminded relevant parties that affected submissions for its review of firewood collection on public land - Victoria's Firewood Strategy for Public Land discussion paper - close next week.
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