Australia — The Victorian Government is facing a legal showdown with landowners, farmers and small businesses over the devastating alpine fires of 2003.
A writ lodged on Christmas Eve accuses the State Government, Department of Sustainability and Environment and Parks Victoria of negligence in failing to properly maintain Crown lands and of allowing the fires to escape onto private property.
The writ is the first step in a class action against the Government over its alleged failure to adequately backburn and reduce forest floor litter in state forests, Crown lands and the Alpine National Park ahead of the worst bushfire conditions encountered in decades.
The 2003 inferno began on the night of January 7 when lightning strikes started 80 fires across vast tracts of national park and state forests in north-east Victoria.
The fires converged into the largest bushfire in Victoria since the infamous Black Friday fires of 1939.
They burned for 59 days until March 7 and wiped out more than 1 million hectares of bushland, farms and private property.
Isolated farmhouses, small rural communities and towns such as Omeo spent weeks cloaked in smoke and under threat from the flames.
Operators of the Mount Buffalo Chalet, which was damaged in the fires, are among those preparing to make a claim against the Government.
“It has been coming for a long time,” said Simon Paton of the Stretton Group, which has for years lobbied the Government to change its land management practices.
“Beyond the claim for negligence, this goes to a claim for common sense.”
Mr Paton is not involved in the legal action.
“Most of these fires were not aggressively attacked when they developed in Crown land and instead became great infernos that raced out of the bush into private property,” Mr Paton said.
“Those fires caused all sorts of grief and damage.
There is a problem there and it is big, and if they don’t take notice of it now it will come back to haunt us all.”
Lodging of the writ follows the findings of a parliamentary inquiry into the impact of public land management practices on bushfires in Victoria.
The inquiry last month called for “a substantial increase in prescribed/ecological burning” on Crown lands.
“The majority of stakeholders argued that the current targeted level of prescribed burning, approximately 130,000 hectares annually, undertaken by DSE and its partner agencies is insufficient to mitigate the impacts of future bushfires and provide the level of fire needed to promote healthy ecological outcomes,” the upper house committee noted.
“The committee agrees with these stakeholders and recommends a significant increase in the level of prescribed burning to mitigate the risks associated with future bushfires.”
Daniel Oldham, a partner at Slidders Lawyers, which lodged the writ, described the case as being in its infancy but acknowledged that a successful claim against the Government on the 2003 fires could lead to further action.
“We have issued proceedings on behalf of an unspecified number of people, but it is likely to be between 20 and 30 at this stage,” he said.
“We expect more over time, as hundreds were affected by these fires.”
If a class action proceeds against the State Government over the events of 2003, it is likely others will follow over the 2005 Wilsons Promontory fire, which began as a controlled DSE backburn but escaped.
Action is likely too, over the Grampians and Anakie fires of February, 2006, which burnt more than 100,000 hectares including 47pc of the Grampians National Park, devastating local tourism.