Restrictions on burn-offs increase risk of bushfires, expert warns


John Ferguson – Dec 30, 2015

One of Australia’s leading fire ­experts has warned that the failure to conduct enough controlled burns is exposing people to another large-scale disaster, declaring the lack of intervention is creating Black Saturday-sized fuel loads.

Former CSIRO bushfire scientist David Packham yesterday called for at least a doubling of controlled burns in states such as Victoria, where more than 180 people have died, 2300 houses have been destroyed and 75,000 head of livestock have been killed since 2002.

Mr Packham is at direct odds with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews but believes that after decades of studying fire, Australia needs to revert to a system where significantly more controlled burn-offs occur to slash fuel loads.

Regular controlled burning would lead to “cooler” fires that are less destructive to the bush but create enough fire breaks to halt lightning strikes or deliberately lit blazes.

Mr Packham told The Australian that the Victorian government’s decision to scrap a 5 per cent target of controlled burns on public land that had been introduced after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires was poor policy that amounted to “pathological science” and in fact there needed to be much more burning.

“It’s filled with science fiction,’’ he said of the decision to dump the target. “Thermodynamics can’t be argued with.’’

He has previously argued that had a 5 per cent regime been adhered to, the Black Saturday fires would not have claimed 173 lives.

Mr Andrews declared on Monday that burning-off strategies had worked well in the Great Otway National Park, which was the genesis for the Christmas Day inferno that destroyed 116 houses at Wye River and Separation Creek. Malcolm Turnbull yesterday toured the affected area but refused to politicise the fire debate, instead offering federal aid to ­extend the fire water-bombing season by six weeks.

State opposition emergency services spokesman Brad Battin said the decision to scrap the Black Saturday royal commission’s recommendations of 5 per cent targets for burn-offs on public land was vexed.

While the new system of a risk-reduction target in fire-danger areas close to people might work, it was essential a formal burn-reduction measure was kept, he said.

“There still has to be an open and public discussion on how they are going to achieve them,” Mr Battin said.

Mr Packham said the fuel loads were so heavy in the Wye River fire that it had been impossible to stop, but the energy produced by the blaze was still well below the Black Saturday disaster.

He recommends the rate of burning off on public land should rise from the 5 per cent target to 10 to 12 per cent.

Last financial year, 9642ha were burnt in the Barwon Otway region; the national park contains more than 103,000ha and is about 160km southwest of Melbourne.

Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley told The Australian that the Otway region was a notoriously difficult area in which to conduct controlled burns. He said the area where lightning struck on December 19 was normally wet but had dried off earlier than normal.

Mr Packham said more frequent burn-offs would mean bushfires would have significantly less chance of getting away because more ground would have been burnt in preceding seasons. “It just needs to be done frequently.”

The Prime Minister yesterday declared tighter planning regulations backed by the bushfire royal commission a success. “But, of course, nature can be cruel and capricious,” Mr Turnbull said during a tour of Wye River with his wife, Lucy.

“You see one house burnt to nothing — burnt to the ground — and next door a house of similar vintage, a similar age appears untouched.’’

The changes to burning off in Victoria are designed to cut the incidence of big burn-offs in areas where there are few people, but which were still included in the 5 per cent target.

Victoria’s Inspector-General for Emergency Management found some burn-offs were being conducted unnecessarily while other areas were being neglected because they were in difficult terrain.

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