Bushfires blamed on DSE neglect

Bushfires blamed on DSE neglect

4 July 2008

published by sl.farmonline.com.au

Australia — A parliamentary inquiry has returned what many suspected – that prescribed burning would have reduced the intensity, scale and impact of the 2002-03 Alpine bushfires and 2007-08 Great Divide bushfires.

The damning report criticised the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s (DSE) management of public land, highlighting a lack of prescribed burning over decades, lack of skills and funding and lack of community interface.

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee (ENRC) behind the report – which found the scale and intensity of the bushfires were the direct result of inappropriate fire regimes, specifically insufficient prescribed burning – recommended the DSE lift annual prescribed burning targets from 130,000 hectares to 385,000ha and that shortcomings be made up in subsequent years.

While legislative, regulatory and reporting structures were found to provide enough support for undertaking prescribed burning, the frequency and extent of such burning was determined as insufficient over decades to preserve ecological processes and biodiversity and reduce the risk of bushfire.

The committee recommended an increase in prescribed burning in a manner which mimics natural fire as the most appropriate strategy to minimise the immediate and long-term threats to biodiversity from large and intense bushfires and encouraging biodiversity.

The report also concluded that by contributing to the size and intensity of the bushfires, the lack of prescribed burning increased the severity of the Gippsland floods in July 2007. Prescribed burning, which regenerates natural vegetation and prevents run-off, is integral to reducing the risk of such floods, the report said.

The DSE and partner agencies were also found wanting in terms of community and stakeholder engagement and asked to provide greater transparency, accountability, information and more opportunity for community input.

The report called on the DSE to review the effectiveness of prescribed burning every three years and make public the area treated, the number of burns and the extent to which ecological and fuel reduction targets were met in each region.

The report also found an alarming decline in local knowledge, skills, resources and infrastructure associated with the restriction of traditional land uses, despite the likelihood of more frequent and intense fires as predicted by climate change projections.

Minister for Environment and Climate Change Gavin Jennings conceded there were lessons to be learned from the 2003 and 2006-07 fires and that there was a need for change in the way fire agencies share knowledge about bushfire.

“Since March 2007, ENRC has undertaken extensive consultations with regional communities and on-ground visits including East Gippsland, north east Victoria and the Grampians,” Mr Jennings said.

“We will also need to put more effort into planned burning to begin the process of reducing the risk of intense landscape-scale fires.”

This financial year past, the DSE conducted planned burns of more than 150,000ha of parks and forests, above their target but well below the 385,000ha recommended.

Despite the critical tone of the report, which also called for more funding and an increase in skilled staff, Mr Jennings said he “welcomed feedback from the public hearings and submissions”.

“We are better preparing Victoria for the real and increasing threat of bushfire,” he said.

The Government will present its formal response to the inquiry within the next six months.

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