A FORMER senior Victorian Government fire and forest adviser has attacked his past employee’s recent fire management strategies, saying a dramatic drop in controlled burning reflected a government that had dropped the ball.
Past Commissioner for Forests and chief fire officer for the Department of Conservation Forests and Land Athol Hodgson likened the current level of fuel reduction to an “appallingly pitiful” amount.
The comments were made as the Department of Sustainability and Environment this week kick-started its two week controlled burns program in far East Gippsland.
Other areas that will be the focus of the planned burns this year are bush land in the Dandenongs – not burnt since Ash Wednesday in 1983 – the Otways, the Ballarat-Macedon growth corridor and Melbourne’s water catchments.
The dual board member for the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and state disaster committee, whose position with the Victorian government ended in 1987, also called for a radical government led overhaul of bushfire management which took advantage of the abundance of “good policies already available.”
Mr Hodgson was frustrated by the reduction in controlled burning practices, which have been blamed for amplifying the damage spawned by the 2002-03 and black Saturday fires.
“I watch with interest the burning in far East Gippsland and wait and see what more follows,” Mr Hodgson said.
But he also targeted a reluctance to use available, proven, knowledge as a failure of the government’s fire management program.
“If they (government) simply applied knowledge already available for fuel management across broad areas then we could eliminate these horrific fires,” Mr Hodgson told Stock & Land.
“Grazing is appropriate in some areas where there are patches of grazable land, but we are talking about millions of hectares of public owned land and fire is the only way to manage it.”
During Mr Hodgson’s last decade with the state government he oversaw a fuel reduction program encompassing 300,000-400,000 hectares burned annually.
Between 1997-1998 and 2003-2004 the average controlled area burnt dropped to 62,000ha.
“This would have had virtually no effect statewide on fuel reduction.”
A Victorian parliamentary inquiry concluded last year that 385,000ha needed to be burnt annually to reduce the state’s fuel load.
Roger Underwood, chairman of the best practice bushfire management group, The Bushfire Front, and recipient of the 2008 N.W Jolly Medal – the highest honour for outstanding contribution to the profession of forestry in Australia, echoed Mr Hodgson sentiments, deeming the “catastrophic bushfires in Victoria this year” the result of “incompetent leadership and of failed imaginations.”
Addressing a Stretton group luncheon in Melbourne recently Mr Underwood said drought and terrible conditions on the days of the fires was not an acceptable excuse for the colossal damage.
“I accept that drought and bad fire weather increase the risk of serious bushfires. What I do not accept is that unstoppable bushfires are inevitable.”
Mr Underwood said scientific research had concluded a two-fold increase in fuel load amplified a fire by four times and temperature increase by up to four degrees Celsius was found to have no impact on fire ferocity.
“I know from experience and from understanding of the simple physics of bushfire behavior, that technology can never be a substitute for good land management.”
Mr Underwood said the government had failed in its preventative strategy and become misguided in its fire policies despite “200 years of observation and records and over 50 years of scientific research” on the subject.
“How often do you see a politician lighting the first match of a prescribed burn, compared with occasions when you see them breaking a champagne bottle over a newly purchased water bomber?”
Western District farmer, Ted Mann, whose family properties Larra and Brigh Brigh were ruined by the 1939, 1944, 1977 fires said it was with culpability where action needed to stem from.
“Years ago around Derrinalum people with high grass would be given a warning and if it (the grass) was not removed the CFA would move in and burn it.”
“I ask the question, why is prevention slipping away.”
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