Backburning in Victoria ignites political tension

  Backburning in Victoria ignites political tension

21 April 2009

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Australia — TONY EASTLEY: As the Royal Commission into Victoria’s bushfires gets underway, there are calls for the Brumby Government to renew its efforts at back burning.

The State Opposition says the fires were more intense in the areas where the Government’s fuel reduction targets were not met, and they claim the fires in February would have covered less ground and would have been less devastating, if backburning had been done properly.

Rafael Epstein reports.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Few issues inspire such fierce debate as backburning or fuel reduction.

A Labour dominated committee in Victoria’s Parliament last year recommended almost triple the amount of backburning be done.

That was widely reported.

What hasn’t caught public attention are the figures on burning off, and how they correlate to those areas hit hardest by February’s fires.

The committee was told that in the regions of Port Phillip, the northeast and Gippsland, the Government’s backburning targets were not fulfilled.

Sometimes as much as 40 per cent of the targeted bush wasn’t burnt off.

These areas include the communities like Kinglake, St Andrews, Strathewen and Churchill.

The figures don’t include last year’s burning off, and Premier John Brumby says Victoria has burnt more hectares of forest than ever before.

JOHN BRUMBY: The number of days on which you can safely burn off has been very limited.

So I think we burned about 150,000 – the best for 10 years.

There are some parts of the state where fire reduction, fuel reduction burning has occurred in the last two or three years but it didn’t stop the fire.

There are parts of Gippsland where that occurred, where it just swept through irrespective of the fact there had been fuel reduction.

Again, all of these things will get assessed I think in submissions put to the commission.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Critics point out that where those burn-off targets were achieved, in the south-west and north-west regions for the four years to the end of 2007, there was very little fire activity in February this year.

The Royal Commission into the fires will assess how significant fuel reduction can be when bushfires are so intense.

But the State Opposition is adamant; the fires, they say, were more devastating because the fuel reduction programme never met its own goals.

Nationals leader, Peter Ryan.

PETER RYAN: The probability is that had those fuel reduction burns been undertaken, even to the Government’s modest scale, let alone to the extent to which the Victorian all-party committee has since recommended, then there would have been a lessening of the intensity of the fire, simply because the fuel loads would not have been available to the extent they were.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: But there are some parts of the state where significant back burning was done, and it made no difference on Black Saturday.

PETER RYAN: There are, in some instances, examples of where that was so.

But whichever way you look at it, there is a general community acceptance, as reinforced by this committee finding, that preventative burning is a very, very important part of the fire control system.

And again, I refer to the committee’s findings, as tabled in the Parliament last year.

It had no hesitation in coming to the conclusion that the modest targets of the Government over this past decade should effectively be tripled.

TONY EASTLEY: The leader of the Nationals Party of Victoria Peter Ryan, ending that report by Rafael Epstein.

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