There are out-of-control fires burning across northern Victoria, Australia, with more than 170,000 hectares consumed so far. There is an update in today’s The Age and also a photo gallery which can be accessed from the main page.
Yesterday I phoned Max Rheese a friend and colleague from Benalla. He said he was OK and that he would send me a note for the blog about the fires:
“Seven days ago, on Friday December 1, I relaxed in the family room of my home in Benalla in North East Victoria and watched the first of the summer thunderstorms pass overhead. I witnessed the lightning strike in the nearby ranges that started the first of fifty fires to be ignited by that thunderstorm. A week later I sit in the same room and cannot see more than 200 metres into the paddocks because of the thick smoke that has enveloped Benalla from the still burning fires.
A total of 150,000 hectares of mainly native forest has been burnt in the past week. Tomorrow the forecast temperature is 39 degrees with northerly winds and dire predictions of impending disaster by everyone from Premier Bracks to the local hairdresser. Speculation of 600,000 hectares being burnt by the end of next week are reported.
A distinct feeling of déjà vu pervades, as North East Victoria went through the same sort of event in the Alpine fires of 2003 where 1.1 million hectares of mainly public land was burnt in 59 days of inferno that was unequalled, in area burnt, since Black Friday in January 1939.
It is difficult to comprehend for many people that we should be facing a potential holocaust this summer after the very recent disastrous fires of 2003. Ample evidence was presented at a number of inquiries into the 2003 fires that a lack of prescribed burning over a twenty year period had increased the fuel load in many areas of the high country of Victoria.
Athol Hodgson, a former chief fire officer for the then Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands presented submissions to the inquiries that followed the 2003 fires detailing the lack of prescribed burning over the previous two decades. This was not disputed.
The following is an extract of a paper that Hodgson delivered to The Eureka Forum in Ballarat in 2004:
Another top priority is to restore prescribed burning programs in forests. Immediately after the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 the Government injected $1 million extra into the programs effectively doubling the money available for field staff to do the work. Yet the programs crashed. In 1992 the Auditor General found that the Department of Conservation and Environment had failed to achieve its planned fuel-reduction targets in three consecutive seasons and that those areas the Department identified as warranting the highest level of protection to human life, property and public assets received the lowest level of protection. And in 2003 the Auditor General found that since 1994, fuel reduction burning has never met the Department’s planning and operational fuel-reduction targets. In allowing that to happen, the Department ignored the truism heralded by Judge Stretton in 1939, repeated by Sir Esler Hamilton Barber in 1977 and further reinforced by the Miller Report on the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983, that fire prevention must be the paramount consideration of the forest manager.
The Government and the Department must lift their game. They must do so, not only in places where the priority is to protect life and assets. Those places are a very small proportion of the forest estate and to concentrate on them to the exclusion of the rest of the forests will lead inevitably to more feral fires. Prescribed burning has been done successfully in the past on broad areas to create forest diversity and reduce the damaging effects of wildfires. The practice had little community and no political support from the mid-1980’s until 2003 and was the reason why fuel management programs crashed in that era. That support must be won and the practice reinstated in our forests in a safe way.
…”that fire prevention must be the paramount consideration of the forest manager”.
This is not rocket science, but we as a community have lost the plot. We are so busy embracing the notion of protecting our forests that we cannot see the forest for the trees.
For goodness sake! How many times do we have to go through this before we get it right?
Figures supplied by the Department of Sustainability and Environment [responsible for fire management on public land] to the Auditor General show that 127,000 hectares were burnt in 2004 – 2005 in prescribed burns. This very mediocre total was one year after the disastrous Alpine fires of 2003. This is well below the 10 year average for burns of 200,000 hectares and even further behind the high points of prescribed burning in the 1980’s where totals of upto 450,000 were burnt one year and over 300,000 hectares were burnt in several other years.
We need to stop the blame game, encourage the Victorian government to adopt a proper scientific regime of sufficient prescribed burning that will deliver confidence in the management of native forests to lessen the impacts of fires in years of severe drought such as this year.
Governments and the community must accept that there is inherent risk in prescribed burning and that occassionally a burn will escape. To not accept this risk and to be overly prescriptive with protocols for burning operations will result in the situation that country Victorians will face this weekend; multiple uncontrolled wildfires in areas that have not had fuel reduction burns for many years.
Executive Director, Australian Environment Foundation “
My thoughts are with the communities in northern Victoria and also the communities of forest animals.