12 Feb 2009, 5:13pm
Politics and politicians The 2009 Fire Season
by admin

Time to heed the warnings

Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun, February 13, 2023 [here]

JOHN Brumby says he will call a royal commission into the fires that have so mauled us.

“We want to put in place whatever arrangements are necessary to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.”

Good, Premier. But the question is: will your government this time listen?

Every time we suffer a disastrous bushfire it’s the same. In our agony, we set up an inquiry.

Cold months - even years - later, that inquiry tells us that we must especially do more fuel reduction burns to stop forest litter from mounting so high that it turns a fire into a turbo-fuelled inferno, impossible to fight.

And each time governments ignore them. Or forget them. Or hear too late.

In fact, no government has ignored them more completely than this one, doing fewer and fewer fuel reduction (or prescribed) burns over this past 10 years, until time had run out.

Here, let me quote the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s fire manager of the very region which contains the now annihilated towns of Kinglake and Marysville, where so many of our 200 dead perished.

Here he is, just 16 months ago, telling a parliamentary inquiry how far behind the DSE was on its paltry targets for prescribed burns - and why:

“It is hard to put a finger on, to say in this urban interface environment how you can increase that level of prescribed burning - double it, to get up to our target - without having a huge influx of resources.” (My emphasis.)

Those resources never came.

But resources sure were there for the green causes this Government preferred to chase.

That DSE fire chief again: “Climate change was the focus of our annual conference this year with the CFA at Lakes Entrance, and we managed to make it rain down there for two days!”

In fact, there was stronger support under this government for prescribed burning that helped nature than for burning that helped humans.

Read that in a 2003 report to the premier by the Emergency Services Commissioner: “The number and area of burns for fuel reduction has declined more markedly through the 1990s than has that for regeneration burns.”

How many times have Victorian governments ignored such warnings, letting the fuel in our forests mount to these lethal levels?

Well, ask the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, which in 2007 wrote to yet another inquiry into bushfires to suggest that rather than ask for more advice, Victoria should just act on the advice it had been given already.

“DAFF would also like to draw the attention of the Inquiry to the outcomes of the national inquiries held after the 2003 fires . . .

“There is concern that some of the recommendations from the national inquiries have not been implemented by land management agencies.”

In particular, “prescribed burning (in Victoria) has been reducing in recent years”.

But by then we were already so mad with tree worship that one of the shires worst hit by the fires this past week boasted that “the Shire of Yarra Ranges has not undertaken prescribed burning on public land under its control for a number of years”.

Bizarrely, Mitchell Shire Council even made a ratepayer, Liam Sheahan, pay $100,000 in fines and costs for clearing his own fire break, which last weekend saved his Reedy Creek home from the fire storm which destroyed many houses around it.

And Nillumbik Shire, which contains Kinglake, last year warned ratepayers it had just fined two people for clearing trees from around their own homes, and another for simply picking up dead wood from the roadside.

“Nillumbik values its large tree canopies, they are major contributors to the landscape and character of our shire, and provide a familiar habitat for our precious wildlife,” the mayor wrote.

His trees now? Gone. The houses, too.

No, stop. You are right. I’m too angry, given that just two days ago I said this was not yet the time to point fingers.

I’m too vehement, given there is no firm proof yet that experts are right in saying high fuel loads in our forests, and trees left to loom over houses and roads, made a fatal difference.

And I’m too damning, given that politicians tend to do only what the dizzy media and public demand.

So let’s just agree for now that many things probably conspired to make these fires so murderous, from the failure of governments to set up a telephone warning system, to the public’s tree-change complacency about the bush. From slack building codes to a lack of fireproof shelters.

But let’s also agree on this: that this time we will not ignore the findings of this inquiry as we ignored the most urgent warning of the many before it.

So rather than say more, I’ll just show you how often that warning was given so you can decide for yourself: Is it answers we lack, or the will to act?

1939 Judge Leonard Stretton, royal commissioner investigating the Black Friday fires:

“The amount of (controlled) burning which was done was ridiculously inadequate.”

1984 The Bushfire Review Committee on the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires:

The amount of fuel reduction burning was “too low”, and “mitigation and preparedness (should) be enhanced and maintained in the future”.

1992 Auditor-General’s report on fire prevention by the Department of Conservation and Environment:

“The failure of the department to achieve its planned fuel-reduction burns each year has resulted in an increasing accumulation of fuel on forest floors. This makes Victoria’s forests and protected lands more susceptible to the occurrence of fires . . .

“Those areas warranting the highest level of protection to human life, property and public assets had in fact received the lowest level of protection.”

1994 CSIRO’s then chief fire expert, Phil Cheney, on the findings of a national fire management conference:

“(O)bservations of firefighters and wildfire case histories have convinced royal commissions, committees of enquiry and coroners that fuel reduction, by prescribed burning, is an essential component of fire management in eucalypt forests . . .

“Over the 10 years prior to 1994 there has been (a) decline in the area prescribed burnt for fuel . . .”.

2003 Federal parliamentary report on fires in Canberra, NSW and Victoria:

The committee heard a consistent message right around Australia: . . . there has been grossly inadequate hazard reduction burning on public lands for far too long . . .”.

2003 State inquiry into Victoria’s 2002-03 fires, by Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Elspin:

In recent years, areas that have been prescribed burned in the North East and Gippsland . . . are below rates likely to be satisfactory either for fuel reduction for purposes of asset protection, or for the ecological needs of plant communities . . . (T)he trend, at least, should be for more prescribed burning rather than less.”

2003 David Packham, academic and former CSIRO bushfire scientist, in a study for Nillumbik residents of roads around Kinglake, where many have now died:

“The mix of fuel, unsafe roadsides and embedded houses, some with zero protection and no hope of survival, will ensure that when a large fire impinges upon the area a major disaster will result.”

2003 Nillumbik Ratepayers Association in a letter to WorkCover:

“The threat is that many of the roads including major ones and access roads to some schools and aged-care facilities have developed dangerous levels of fuel that on extreme fire danger days could generate fire behaviour that would not be survivable . . .

“This risk has been created by application of Government and shire planning controls that have prevented fuel reduction on roadsides.”

2004 Athol Hodgson, former chief fire officer for the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands:

“Another top priority is to restore prescribed burning programs in forests . . . (I)n 2003 the Auditor-General found that since 1994, fuel reduction burning has never met the department’s planning and operational fuel reduction targets.”

2007 Evidence to State Parliament’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee from the Department of Sustainability and the Environment:

“The East Port Phillip region fire district . . . includes the fire-prone municipalities of Yarra Ranges, Nillumbik . . . Over the last 10 years, the district burns an average of . . . 1345ha (which) falls somewhat short of the East Port Phillip Fire Protection Plan target of 2307ha . . .”.

2008 Environment and Natural Resources Committee report:

“That in order to enhance the protection of community and ecological assets, the Department of Sustainability and Environment increase its annual prescribed burning target from 130,000ha to 385,000ha.”

December 5, 2023 News report, just four weeks before the fires:

“The State Government pledged yesterday to increase controlled burning across the state, in the wake of a horror bushfire season two years ago.

“It will spend an extra $10 million working with the community to develop and implement large-scale planned burning.”

To “develop”. To eventually “implement”, after “working with the community”, the burning that almost every inquiry or report since 1939 has said was urgent, or falling behind.

I suspect Brumby’s royal commission will repeat these old warnings.

But will we this time act?



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