Australia — THIS year’s hot summer created a devastating fire season with lives and homes lost in Gippsland, the alpine region and Dereel.
So it should be good news the Victorian Government has already started its fuel reduction burns program across the state.
But to old-timers living in the densely-forested parts of Gippsland’s high country, the government’s program is inadequate.
They are demanding changes, and they are not alone. The people who have lived and loved that part of the world for decades blame poor knowledge of the bush and a risk-averse culture for not burning nearly enough to protect residents or forests.
Heather Livingstone, 88, of Buchan South was born in the bush.
Her father settled in the area in 1882.
She knows all about the devastation of bushfires, having lost two houses and a wool shed at Wulgulmerang, in North East Victoria, in the devastating 2003 fires.
She remembers the days when drovers and bushmen followed the way of indigenous people and regularly used fire to keep fuel loads down and regenerate the bush.
“It was beautiful grassy open-country back then,” Mrs Livingston said.
The open grass country provided a filtration system for pristine waterways that flowed through the high country, something that was destroyed when fires swept through.
“In 2003 after the fires, I sank to my knees in the ash. That filtration system is gone,” she said.
The East Gippsland Wildfire Taskforce, made up of concerned East Gippsland residents, has long advocated a better fuel reduction burns program.
Members believe Department of Sustainability and Environment staff, who administer fire management of Crown land, are not burning enough to reduce fuel or fire risk.
They are critical of the Government’s adoption of the recommendation from the Black Saturday Royal Commission to burn 5 per cent of Victoria’s public land every year.
“(The Government is) making an effort to comply with the Royal Commission recommendations, but not with any effect to address the real issue,” chairman John Mulligan said.
The group claims the lack of burns has changed the nature of forests and allowed them to become overgrown, with less diversity and higher fuel loads. This in turn makes them vulnerable to devastating fires.
“We knew what the bush was like and all the flora and fauna that was around. But it’s all gone, you wouldn’t see a kangaroo or a wombat in there now. The bush is too thick,” Cann River producer Graeme Connelly said.
The group also wants more local input into the burns program.
This is something both the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria and Victorian National Parks Association want.
“The alps are in great danger of wild fire and severe fire. We should have some input with our knowledge of a balanced management plan,” Mountain Cattlemen’s Association president Charlie Lovick said.
“The (DSE) are a bit philosophical and lean too much toward science rather than experience.
“If you can amalgamate science and our experience-based knowledge, you will get the best possible outcome for this high country.”
Victorian National Parks Association spokesman Phil Ingamells said local knowledge was not being used particularly well and believed the Government was opting to complete “easy” burns in areas like the Mallee, while more difficult areas such as the Gippsland high country were neglected.
“We see an awful a lot of burning going on in trying to reach a total quota across the state, rather than strategic burning,” Mr Ingamells said.
Mr Ingamells said the Government’s 5 per cent burning target was counter-productive to good management.
“If you are going to have targets, have them locally-based and based on science and knowledge,” he said.
DSE Chief Fire Officer Alan Goodwin defended the Government stance, which offered the best level of protection to people and property from bushfires. Local input was always sought, he said.
“We value local knowledge and feedback and welcome input to our planning process,” Mr Goodwin said.
The decision on when and where to carry out burns was always driven by the need to reduce bushfire risk, he said.
The “rolling” target has been questioned by Neil Comrie, the Bushfire Royal Commission Implementation Monitor, who was asked to report on the Government’s response to the Royal Commission recommendations.
Mr Comrie’s report in July advocated “that the State reconsider the planned burning rolling target of 5 per cent as the primary outcome, as part of the planned burning reform program”.
But the Government is pushing on with its plan to reach its target and burn more country.
Environment Minister Ryan Smith announced on March 15 that the DSE planned to burn 250,000ha this year, on top of 197,000ha burnt last year. This was claimed to be the largest area covered in 21 years.
“In the next week there are almost 90 burns set to be carried out around Gippsland, including roughly 30 of which are in the Orbost district,” Mr Goodwin said.
But desktop reports and statistics may never persuade critics.
“The knowledge of fires and what you need to know is disappearing,” Deddick cattle and sheep producer Tom Ventry said.
“We need practical people who know what they are doing.”