Australia — Forest fuel levels have worsened over the past 30 years because of “misguided green ideology”, vested interests, political failure and mismanagement, creating a massive bushfire threat, a former CSIRO bushfire scientist has warned.
Victoria’s “failed fire management policy” is an increasing threat to human life, water supplies, property and the forest environment, David Packham said in a submission to the state’s Inspector-General for Emergency Management.
And he argued that unless the annual fuel reduction burning target, currently at a minimum of 5 per cent of public land, “is doubled or preferably tripled, a massive bushfire disaster will occur. The forest and alpine environment will decay and be damaged possibly beyond repair and homes and people [will be] incinerated.”
He said forest fuel levels had climbed to their most dangerous level in thousands of years.
Mr Packham produced his submission in response to a review of bushfire fuel management announced last month by the state government and to be conducted by the Inspector-General for Emergency Management.
In an interview with Fairfax Media, Mr Packham said a comprehensive fuel reduction burning regime reduced fuel loads, and consequently reduced the intensity of bushfires, cutting the speed at which they spread. This gave people more time to find safety and fire services more time to respond, he said.
Some people believe the Andrews government will dump the minimum 5 per cent burning target in response to the Inspector-General’s report. Five years ago, both major parties backed the “minimum of 5 per cent” target, a key recommendation of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission held after Black Saturday.
The Black Saturday fires killed 173 Victorians, while hospital emergency care was delivered to more than 800 others. The fires destroyed 2133 houses and burnt hundreds of thousands of hectares.
The royal commission examined the role of fuel reduction burning and in its final report recommended a prescribed burning program with “an annual rolling target of a minimum of 5 per cent of public land each year, and that the state be held accountable for meeting this target”.
It also criticised what it described as the state’s “minimalist approach to prescribed burning”, and warned that the state had “allowed the forests to continue accumulating excessive fuel loads”.
The commission investigated fuel reduction burning and the Black Saturday fires. It found that the rate of spread and size of the Beechworth-Mudgeegonga fire, which killed two people, “were significantly moderated by previous prescribed burning”. And it said that in some places the rate of spread of the Kilmore East fire, which killed 119 people, was “appreciably slowed by previous prescribed burning”.
But the commission also heard that no large-scale fuel reduction burns had been conducted in areas where the two most deadly Black Saturday fires, the Kilmore East and Murrindindi bushfires, gathered force in the first hours after they ignited.
Several weeks before Black Saturday, the Whittlesea fire captain noted excessive fuel loads and dryness around Strathewen (which was smashed by fire on Black Saturday) and Mount Disappointment. He attributed the “conditions to a lack of fuel reduction and drought”.
Mr Packham said if the government scrapped the planned burning target it would have to be prepared to accept the consequences. “If they do decide that, and it’s a democratic country, they can decide that, but I want them to stand up and take responsibility when the outcome falls apart,” he said.
Mr Packham estimated that if Victoria had had a consistent 5 per cent planned burning regime on public land in the years leading up to Black Saturday, scores of lives lost in the devastating blazes would have been saved.
Submissions to the bushfire fuel management review will be accepted until 5pm on Friday. The Inspector-General for Emergency Management has been directed by the state government to deliver his report by the end of this month.