Flawed fire strategy led to big blazes

Flawed fire strategyled to big blazes

27 June 2008

published by www.theage.com.au

Victoria, Australia — The scale and ferocity of the devastating Victorianbushfires in 2002-03 and 2006-07 was the direct result of a flawed fire regimethat failed to enact adequate burn-offs, a damning parliamentary report hasfound.

The bushfires, which blazed across a combined area of 2.3 million hectares,also significantly worsened the extent of the Gippsland floods in June last year,the cross-party Environment and Natural Resources Committee report found. “Thescale and intensity of the 2002-03 and 2006-07 bushfires were the result ofinappropriate fire regimes, and in particular, of an insufficient level of …prescribed burning,” it said.

The frequency and extent of burn-offs had been insufficient for decades and adecline in local firefighting knowledge, skill and infrastructure, had stuntedthe ability of agencies to manage fire on public land, it found.

“This report is clear evidence of Labor’s failure to heed repeatedwarnings and increase its program of prescribed burning — this cannot continue,”Victorian Nationals leader and member for South Gippsland, Peter Ryan, saidyesterday.

But independent Gippsland east MP Craig Ingram said Mr Ryan needed to”pull his head in”, and the bushfires were the result of years ofinaction by successive governments.

The severe Gippsland floods, for which insurance losses alone totalled $15million, were exacerbated by the bushfires, with denuded catchment areasresulting in greater run-off, the report found. The fires increased thelikelihood of more intense thunderstorms — because increased surfaces createdgreater warm updrafts — and burnt the soil so that it repelled water andincreased erosion. “Large areas were burnt with a high degree of intensity,resulting in significant loss of vegetation and susceptibility to increasedrun-off and erosion,” it said.

The committee urged the Department of Sustainability and Environment toalmost triple its annual burn-off target, from 130,000 hectares to 385,000hectares, and said the Victorian Government must provide money for thesignificant boost to regionally based firefighters and specialists. But PremierJohn Brumby said the revised targets would be hard to meet because weatherconditions often prevented preseason burns.

The report found the impact of the 2003 fires had a devastating effect onalpine animals.

Victorian National Parks Association spokesman Philip Ingamells said managingfire for public safety was important, but better knowledge of how and when toburn was needed.

Former Channel Nine News reporter Charles Slade, who gave evidence, said hefelt vindicated by the findings. Mr Slade told the inquiry the DSE hadmanipulated media coverage of the 2003 bushfires to portray the department asheroic and improve its chances of greater funding. “The DSE never intendedto ‘fight’ the fires, merely to patrol them,” he said last night.

The committee received 257 submissions and heard evidence from 202 witnesses.

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