WE were all appalled by the death and destruction that was the Victorian bushfires early this year. On Black Saturday nearly 200 people died. The number of koalas incinerated probably runs into the thousands, the number of native birds dead in the millions.
A Royal Commission was established with the Victorian Government promising an inclusive process with the broadest possible terms of reference. Preliminary hearings by that commission begin today in Melbourne, but already many experts with local knowledge and experience have been advised their tesimonies won’t be heard; that they will not be given leave to appear before the commission.
After Black Saturday, there was a memorial service, broadcast nationally and attended by many dignitaries’ including Princess Ann. It was opened by a representative from the local aboriginal tribe. She commented that the land was once burnt every seven years by her people. But not like these fires, she said, they tortured the land, our fires cleaned it.
Foresters have also advocated controlled burning recognising that debris quickly accumulated on the forest floor and that the best way to manage this is through regular burning, or risk uncontrollable and much more destructive wild fires.
But this advice has not been heeded either.
Because of the conversion of large areas of land to national park, a reduction in resourcing along with policies underpinned by the assumption that active land management is not always compatible with wilderness values, fuel loads have generally increased.
In 2004, so concerned about the situation, a group of men whose professional careers had been dedicated to understanding forest ecology and/or bushfire behaviour formed an association called Forest Fire Victoria Inc. In short the members of this new association all had proven records in the area of bushfire management; that is they had held important positions and/or published in the best journals. Furthermore, they were mostly Victorians – with a deep knowledge of the local forest environments.
The stated purpose of the association is to:
• Provide and promote independent and expert opinion on forest fire management;
• Ensure that Victoria’s forest fire management policies and practices are based on science, experience and accountability; and address social, economic and environmental values of natural ecosystems;
• Ensure that the long-term well-being and safety of forest ecosystems and their surrounding rural communities are protected.
Today, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission begins its preliminary hearings, but so many important persons have been excluded; they have already been notified that the requests they lodged to appear before the commission have been rejected, including Forest Fire Victoria Inc.
That’s correct, I have been informed that Forest Fire Victoria Inc. has been refused leave to appear before the Royal Commission.
The government had assured the people of Victoria that:
• The Commissioners will have extensive powers to call for any papers or persons relevant to their inquiry.
• This commission will have the capacity to examine every aspect of the bushfires – no stone will be left unturned.
• The Commission has been asked to make recommendations on a wide range of aspects including fire preparation, planning schemes, response measures, communication systems and strategies, and training and resourcing.
• The Government has approved $40 million for the establishment and operation of the Royal Commission.
Much has been said about government’s paying lip service to consultation particularly as it relates to land management – not only in Australia, but across the English-speaking world. But to actually exclude testimony from the recognised local experts within a community … we indeed appear to be entering a new error of rule by political bureaucracy.
Links and Notes
Bushfire Royal Commission website
FIRES ROYAL COMMISSION TO HAVE WIDE TERMS OF REFERENCE
Forest Fires Victoria Inc website,
Members of Forest Fires Victoria Inc,
Peter Attiwill, PhD, BScFor, AssocDipFor, is Principal Fellow in Botany, and Honorary Fellow, The Australian Centre,The University of Melbourne. He has researched in eucalypt ecology over 40 years, with a concentration on soils and nutrient cycles, and on bushfires and ecosystem recovery. He is a member of editorial boards of a number of Australian and overseas journals. He has published extensively in the international journals, and his latest book is Ecology: An Australian Perspective (co-editor BA Wilson, Oxford University Press 2003).
Phil Cheney, FIFA, BScFor, DipFor, is Senior Principal Research Scientist, Division of Forestry, CSIRO. He was head of CSIRO’s Bushfire Research from 1975 to 2001. He has forty years of experience in research into bushfires including bushfire behaviour, prescribed burning, mass fires, fire ecology, aerial and ground suppression, fire-fighter physiology, fire-fighter safety, heat transfer, home protection and water catchment hydrology. He was awarded the CSIRO Medal for outstanding research achievement in the application of fire science for safer fire-fighting and safer communities.
Brian Gibson, AM, BScFor, BA, began his career with the Forestry Commission, Victoria. He then moved to the private forestry sector, and was Managing Director of Australian Newsprint Mills Ltd from 1980-1989, and President of the National Association of Forest Industries from 1987-1991. He was a Liberal Senator for Tasmania from 1993 to 2001. Mr Gibson is a director of several companies.
RC (Bob) Graham, AFSM, DipForCres, has more than 40 years experience of fire prevention, suppression, and prescribed burning. He was a principal (Level 3) Controller and Operations Officer at major fires in Victoria including Ash Wednesday fire, 1983, the North-East fire, 1985 and the disastrous north-east fires, 2003. He has led task forces to South Australia and to the Blue Mountains fire, 1994. He is currently a Managing Director and consultant on wild-fire behaviour and suppression in both native forests and plantations, and in planning and conducting prescribed burns.
Athol Hodgson, BScFor, DipFor, has more than 50 years experience in fire management and forest fire research in Australia, USA, Canada, France and Spain. He was formerly Chief Fire Officer and then Commissioner for Forests, Forests Commission of Victoria. He was a Member of the Board of the Country Fire Authority and a Member of the State Disaster Committee. He was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship to study fire management in North America, and is a graduate from the National Advanced Fire Behaviour School, Marana, Arizona.
Rod Incoll AFSM, BASocSci, GradDipBus, DipFor, developed fire management skills as a forester from 1960. Rod set up the Commission’s fire training 1971-1972. He was District Forester, Toolangi 1976-1984. From 1984 he was an SEC divisional manager, a role that included fire protection of electricity production assets. From 1990-1996 he was Chief Fire Officer for public land in Victoria, a director of the CFA Board, the State Emergency Services Council, and the Australasian Fire Authorities Council.
AD (Tony) Manderson MEnvSci, DipFor(Cres) has 43 years experience in natural resource management including native forests, plantations and agricultural land. His fire experience covers all roles from front line fire-fighting to control and logistics at major forest fires over many years. He managed fire control training for the Forests Commission, was Resources Manager for the Victorian Plantations Corporation, and developed the Regulations that formed Industry Brigades within the CFA. He is currently a farmer and consultant on rural environmental issues.
WGD (Bill) Middleton, OAM, DipFor, has some 50 years experience in management of forests, of nurseries and of vegetation habitat in rural areas. He is a broadcaster, public speaker, lecturer and adviser on gardening, natural history, forestry and conservation. He has served on many scientific and community-based boards and committees concerned with wildlife research and landscape conservation, and is an Honorary Life Member of Birds Australia. He is a Board Member and Supervisor of the innovative Potter Farmland Plan for ecologically-sustainable agriculture, and a Board Associate and consultant for the Trust for Nature.
David Packham, OAM, MAppSci, worked for 40 years in bushfire research with CSIRO, Monash University and the Australian Emergency Management Institute. He was responsible for fire-weather services in the Bureau of Meteorology. His extensive research concentrated on the physics of bushfires, and he applied this research to practical issues including the development of aerial prescribed burning, non-evacuation of properties, modelling of fire behaviour, and forensics. He consults extensively on survival of people during bushfires, on fire risk and on coronial inquiries into deaths during fire-fighting.
Kevin Wareing, BScFor, DipForCres, is a forestry consultant and co-author of the narrative of the 2003 Alpine fires in Victoria. He was employed for some 40 years in the Forests Commission, Victoria and its successors in native forest management, plantation expansion, forest education, timber harvesting and industry development policies. He was manager from 1988-1995 of commercial forestry in Victoria’s native forests and plantations. He was awarded a national medal for forest fire fighting service.