Australia — In early May in the remote East Gippsland hamlet of Goongerah, local community representatives presented Victoria’s most senior fire officers with a litany of allegations of mismanagement over last summer’s Goongerah Deddick Trail bushfire, and called for an independent inquiry in a news report on ABC TV.
Goongerah is spread-out along an 8 km length of cleared land hugging the flats of a narrow valley, but is surrounded by extensive public forests that stretch virtually unbroken in some directions for over 50 km. Once a tiny farming and sawmilling community, it is now a haven for ‘close-to-nature’ lifestylers and has become the region’s epicentre of environmental activism.
The Goongerah Deddick Trail fire started as a series of small lightning strikes within these nearby forests, but steadily grew into a fire that eventually burnt through 166,000 hectares of forest and private land over a 53-day period. During this time it threatened life and property at Goongerah, and other small communities nearby, including Bonang and Tubbut.
The local community’s concerns about the fire’s management are centred on five areas which it would like to see addressed. These include changing the current culture of fire-fighting; reverting to the tactics formerly used to fight forest fires; redressing the lack of resources available for fire-fighting, as well as improving communication with local communities and having greater respect for their concerns. These relate primarily to the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) which carries responsibility for controlling bushfires on public lands.
As part of one of the world’s three most fire-prone regions, East Gippsland is no stranger to serious bushfires and from the 1970s, the Victorian government’s forestry agency had developed arguably one of the world’s best fire management models. To those who’ve worked in East Gippsland’s forests in the past, the current allegations regarding the Goongerah Deddick Trail bushfire are suggestive of a sad decline in the formerly accepted standards and culture of forest and fire management.
Understanding how and why this decline has occurred is the key to understanding the alleged mismanagement of the Goongerah Deddick Trail fire. The answers are at least partly contained in an internal DEPI Discussion Paper prepared in June 2013, which was recently leaked to the Weekly Times. It examines the challenges of meeting the higher annual fuel reduction burning target recommended by the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. These challenges are also relevant to DEPI’s summer fire-fighting effort.
According to the Discussion Paper, the loss of much of Victoria’s native hardwood timber industry is particularly significant because it has substantially reduced access to the suitable machinery and bush-experienced operators and foresters who were the conerstone of the strong culture of bushfire prevention and suppression which formerly prevailed in Victoria’s most fire-prone region.
With regard to East Gippsland, the Discussion Paper notes that:
“Over the past 10 years in East Gippsland, timber harvesting contractors have declined from over 80 employees working for 25 companies to around 45 employees working for the remaining 12 contractors………. This trend is forecast to continue and the decline in the timber industry is not expected to improve in the long term.”
Over the same period, VicForests, who manages commercial timber production in the region, has also lost around one-third of its workforce. The regional losses of forestry and industry personnel are actually far greater when considered over a longer timeframe stretching back to the 1980s, when Victoria’s overall fire management capability was arguably at its peak.
The substantial loss of the timber industry has largely broken the traditional funding and resourcing nexus for fire-fighting, as well as critical preparatory acivities such as forest road and track maintenance. This has already been noticable for many years in the diminished condition of the forest road and track network and the greater difficulty of quickly accessing significant bushfires.
The significance of reduced access to equipment and experienced bush operators now makes it more challenging for DEPI to properly resource the fire-fighting effort, and reduces their capacity to directly attack fires to quickly control them. Accordingly, fires are now more likely to be fought indirectly by conducting large scale back-burns from major roads and tracks a strategy that typically allows fires to burn much larger areas while often substantially increasing the time taken to control them. These are criticisms that the community raised in relation to the Goongerah-Deddick Trail fire.
With regard to ‘fire-fighting culture’, a substantial shift away from multiple use forest management to conservation management has dramatically reduced theinfluence of foresters who, as a professional discipline, pioneered and refined forest fire prevention and suppression techniques since the 1940s, and were their most proficient operational proponents.
In the 18 years from 1988 to 2006, the area of nature conservation reserves in Victoria (including national parks) more than doubled from 1.83 million hectares to 3.75 million hectares. From being responsible for managing most of the state’s public forests up until the early 1980’s, by 2008, less than half of Victoria’s public forests were still in land tenures being managed primarily by foresters.
This was further exacerbated by the Government’s 2004 decision to create a new commercial forestry agency, VicForests, limited to managing only the harvesting and regeneration of allocated coupes. This took many of the most experienced foresters out of broader public land management, and although they assist in bushfire emergencies, has ultimately left DEPI with fewer field staff experienced in the operational aspects of managing fire. The most prominent critic of the handling of the Goongerah – Deddick Trail fire is local forest activist Jill Redwood, who coordinates two web-based groups – the Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO) and the rather grandly-titled, Environment East Gippsland (EEG) – from her Goongerah home. Her outspoken demeanor has made her a regular on the regional ABC to an extent that her agenda-driven views on Gippsland forestry are typically afforded greater credibility than foresters and industry insiders who know far more.
According to the EEG website, the group has “been working to protect East Gippsland’s natural areas and wildlife for almost 30 years. As a locally based group we play a vital role in information gathering on the local logging industry and badgering our ‘forest managers'”. The websites of both groups can be described as an eclectic mix of truth, untruth, half-truth, science, and psuedo-science woven together by a combative brand of hyperbole.
The obvious focus of these groups has always been to substantially close down the region’s timber industry and they have worked towards this by conducting regular coupe blockades to generate publicity, as well as constantly “challenging the logging/woodchip industry to come clean” and more latterly, mounting legal challenges over alleged environmental malpractice. Currently on EEG’s Facebook Page, VicForests, who regulate the industry and have been targetted in these legal cases, is ridiculed as being a “dead lo$$” and is urged to “liquidate itself to assist local communities!”
In relation to fire, EEG’s attitude to fuel reduction burning – arguably the most important forest fire management tool – could be described as at times bordering on contemptuous. The EEG website variously refers to it as ‘cowboy vandalism’ and ‘one massive unscientific experiment’, as well as equating it to’declaring war on forests and the environment’.
The EEG has also asserted for some years that Victorian bushfire control has been blighted by deliberate mismanagement. In its submission to the Victorian Government’s Parliamentary Inquiry into the 2006-07 forest fires, this was attributed to the presence of ‘pyromaniacs on the front line’ and it was speculated that ‘a large number of people in all levels of command could be making decisions that perpetuate the drama and intensity of the fire situation.’ Ms Redwood reiterated this sentiment after the recent Goongerah – Deddick Trail fire when she reportedly said “It does seem like there is some financial incentive to keep fires going rather than put them out.”
This thinly veiled implication that forest management authorities are corrupt and incompetent is a familiar theme running through the EEG website, and is somewhat exemplified by a cartoon drawn by Ms Redwood in which the former Department of Sustainability and Environment (now DEPI) is lampooned as the “Department of Stupendous Errors what sort of goof-up can we help you with?”
This is significant given that one of the concerns raised by Ms Redwood and her community in relation to the Goongerah Deddick Trail fire is that fire authorities must give more respect to community concerns and suggestions. However, respect is a two-way street, and it is hypocritical for a community being represented by someone who has so publicly disrespected forest and fire management authorities for many years to be now calling for them to be more respectful.
Given the decades of incessant campaigning by Ms Redwood and her cohorts to effectively tear down the cornerstones of the stronger forest and fire management culture that existed in the past, it is richly ironic that she is now an advocate for changing the ‘culture of fire-fighting in East Gippsland’ and returning to the fire-fighting tactics of the past.
It would be wrong, however, to attribute the decline of effective forest and fire management totally to environmental activism. Other factors are also playing a part, such as the evolution of an operational health and safety paradigm that is inhibiting effective fire-fighting by strangling it in a tangle of risk-avoidance ‘red-tape’.
What can be said though, is that by continually misrepresenting forestry and timber harvesting as an eco-catastrophe for over 30-years, environmental activists have manufactured a misguided perception amongst society’s most influential urban-based media and political classes that ‘saving’ forests is simply a ‘no-brainer’ with no significantly adverse consequences.
This is reflected in almost all mainstream media coverage of forestry issues in which forests are wrongly portrayed as exceedingly fragile rather than resilient, renewable and disturbance-dependent; and where any forests not already contained in National Parks are supposedly earmarked for destruction by a corrupt, greedy, and uncontrolled ‘logging industry’.
We can only speculate on how this has shaped the mindset of those who’ve grown-up with this nonsense and are now staffing land management agencies such as DEPI, but it is probably reasonable to assume that at least some are in the job because they want to save forests rather than actively manage them. Perhaps this underlies the not uncommon instances of misguided priorities where avoiding the disturbance from fireline construction is deemed to be more important than putting out the fire.
We can be more certain about how decades of forest activism and unbalanced media have shaped political views. This was exemplified in the recent biography of former Victorian Labor Premier, Steve Bracks, who implied that closing the State’s native hardwood industry is an unwritten ALP policy. No substantive reasons were given as to why simply that no-one who votes Labor likes it and so it’s a political winner.
Accordingly, under Bracks, the last Victorian Labor government committed to ‘saving’ the Otways forest (2002), the Wombat Forest (2002), the Goolengook and other East Gippsland forests (2006), and the Murray valley red gum forests (2006) from the ‘logging industry’ all announced as promises at the height of State election campaigns.
The damage that this has caused to forest fire management probably hardly matters to a former politician like Bracks, or to major ENGOs like The Wilderness Society and its supporters, who are safely insulated from the fire threat in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. But it sure matters to the small remote forest communities of East Gippsland and elsewhere, where the threat of bushfires is felt up-close and personal each summer.
While Ms Redwood and her cohorts have substantially contributed to their own predicament, this shouldn’t detract from the need to seriously examine the management of the Goolengook Deddict Trail bushfire because documented observations of their performance certainly suggest that it was blighted by confused priorities, inadequate and poorly deployed resources, and an apparent lack of urgency. Whether things can be substantially improved is another story, given the changed world in which DEPI must now exist and operate.
If nothing else, such an inquiry could at least awaken the media and political classes to the reality that aquiescing to the ‘green dream’ of a forested landscape fully reserved in national parks has never been free from adverse consequences, including an unfolding bushfire nightmare for both rural communities and their natural surroundings.