Despite two successive years of terrible bushfires which destroyed hundreds of homes, killed tens of thousands of animals and the livelihood of many people, in the key bushfire states, Victoria and New South Wales, the steps necessary to prevent a recurrence have been largely ignored.
In New South Wales, the Government departments responsible for management of state forests and national parks are the National Parks Service (until recently the National Parks and Wildlife Service), and State Forests. In Victoria, it is the Department of Sustainability and Environment.
In each case, the departments have adopted the view that their role is one of fauna and flora conservation, rather than forest management in the interests of people.
Yet among the hundreds of submissions to the curent Federal Parliamentary Inquiry into the bushfires, and the earlier Victorian Auditor-General’s Report into the Victorian bushfires, a clear picture of the causes of the fire tragedy has emerged, and the steps needed to prevent a repeat.
Apart from the drought conditions which made the eucalypt forests dryer than usual, there has been a huge build-up of dead wood on the forest floor, over many years, as a direct result of the failure of governments to conduct burn-offs in the wetter months.
Studies conducted in Western Australia have shown that regular burn-offs of 10-15 per cent of forests reduce the amount of forest litter to a level where bushfires can be controlled, and do not develop into wildfires.
While governments have blamed wet conditions for the lack of controlled burn-offs (hardly a credible excuse in a drought), the obvious cause is the relentless pressure from greenie groups against fuel reduction burns.
This pressure was articulated by various environmental organisations, such as the Greens, World Wildlife Fund, the Environment Network and Greenpeace.
They have persuaded government departments to make environmental issues, including the exclusion of human activity and preservation of “biodiversity”, the central components of forest management.
For example, the World Wildlife Fund’s submission to the federal Inquiry declared, “Inappropriate fire hazard regimes can damage biodiversity leading to the loss of native species, communities and ecosystems. Biodiversity conservation requirements need to be central to any fire management policy and practice, as reflected in the National Strategy for the conservation of Australia’s Biological Diversity, adopted by the Commonwealth and all States and Territories.”
Its sentiments were echoed by NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Phil Koperberg, who has said publicly that the Fire Service’s priority must be to preserve biodiversity. What he means is that fuel reduction burn-offs must be strictly limited.
In contrast, the government inquiry conducted by Victorian Emergency Services Commissioner, Bruce Esplin, which was released last week, recommended that there should be more fuel reduction burn-offs.
This exactly paralleled the findings of the Victorian Auditor-General, who last May called for “increased focus on strategic management of hazard reduction on public land, to ensure that appropriate targets are set, resources are provided for their achievement and performance is monitored.”
However, with winter gone and only a month of spring remaining, little has been done to avert another tragedy.
For example, the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment’s official site declared that only 45,000 hectares of bush has been subject to fuel-reduction burns this year.
While this sounds substantial, it amounts to just half of one per cent of the 8 million hectares of forest land which the Department is responsible for managing.
According to the Victorian Association of Forest Industries, this compares to an average of 225,000 hectares in the decade from 1974-75 to 1983-84. Recently, the figure has averaged just 80,000 hectares, still almost twice the amount subject to controlled burns this year.
With above-average winter and spring rains through most of the Great Dividing Range in north-eastern Victoria and southern New South Wales, the prospects of another bad fire season are increasing.
Terrible though the recent fires were, they destroyed only about 10 per cent of Victoria’s forests, leaving the balance of 90 per cent increasingly susceptible to wildfires.
In the past two years, New South Wales has suffered successive years of horrific fires which have destroyed 750,000 hectares, then 1.5 million hectares of bush, hundreds of homes around Sydney and Canberra, killed thousands of animals, risked many lives and destroyed the livelihood of many people. With present conditions, this could well be repeated in 2003-4.
Only a sustained political campaign – uniting people living in urban and rural Australia – can end the insane policies which have turned the Australian bush into a fire trap.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council