Winery owner who ‘begged’ for fuel reduction burns loses everything in Bunyip fire

By Damian McIver

The owner of a Tonimbuk winery destroyed by bushfire said his property might have been spared if only the Victorian Government had pursued a more active fuel reduction policy.

Andrew Clarke, the owner of the Jinks Creek Winery, was left devastated after the blaze ripped through his vineyard, cellar door, restaurant and adjoining house over the weekend.

“I don’t have a livelihood,” he told the ABC’s Country Hour.

“I turn 60 this year and I’ve worked on the land all my life and I really don’t think I’ve got it in me to replant my vineyard.”

Mr Clarke is convinced the fire, which was sparked by dry lightning strikes in the Bunyip State Park last week, was exacerbated by the dense bushland that had been left to flourish behind his property.

PHOTO: Jinks Creek Winery was devastated by the blaze which started in the Bunyip State Park. (Instagram: Jinks Creek Winery)

“I’ve been begging them [Forest Fire Management Victoria] for 20 years to burn off the state forest at the back of our place and still to this day it hasn’t happened,” he said.

“I honestly believe the ferocity of that fire was fuelled by the trash in the bush — I think my place might not have been impacted nearly as much, it would have been much more controllable if there’d been some forest management out there.”

Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said it was not clear if planned burns would have helped. 

“Planned burns aren’t necessarily the panacea in relation to fires like this and you have to remember also that we’ve had record low rainfalls in many parts of the state, particularly in relation to Gippsland and these areas,” he told ABC Radio Melbourne. 

“At this particular point in time my focus is on the fact that we’ve still got active fires … as will always be the case, there will be debriefs after this, but for now it’s still about protecting life.”

PHOTO: Mr Clarke believed the fire was worse because there had been no backburning. (ABC News)

The Bushfire Royal Commission in 2010 recommended that 5 per cent of Victorian public land be burnt each year — up from less than 2 per cent before Black Saturday. 

In 2012, the State Government dumped that target in favour of more focused burn-offs closer to communities, and alternative methods like slashing. 

The amount of public land being burnt off has plummeted — from 185,000 hectares in 2015-16 to 65,000 hectares last year.

The former chief fire officer with the then Department of Sustainability and Environment, Ewan Waller, said the strategy was clearly failing. 

“There’s no doubt we’ve got to burn more,” he said. 

“Fuel is probably the only manageable element we can work on — we’ve got these dry seasons and windy days and hot searing heat, but fuel is something we can manage.”

Specialist team needed to manage burns: Waller

Mr Waller said Forest Fire Management Victoria is understandably risk-averse, particularly after the Lancefield bushfire in 2015 when a planned burn-off escaped containment lines and destroyed four homes.

“Once you’ve got the politics involved and irate communities and the blame game … we’ve got to get over that, we’ve got to protect the people doing the burning, they’re taking on a heck of responsibility on behalf of the community and the Government,” Mr Waller said.

PHOTO: Ewan Waller retired as the state’s chief fire officer in 2012. (ABC News: Sean Warren)

Mr Waller acknowledged increasingly volatile weather had made fuel reduction burning “a very difficult proposition”. 

But he said extending the burning season could be one part of the solution.

“Normally the matches are put away at the end of Easter, we could look at burning into winter far more,” he said.

He also suggested a specialist unit be established to manage burns. 

“Maybe teams that are really tuned in that work around the state, doing nothing else but burn, they could be plotting and planning how to do the burning now,” he said.

‘No planned burn would have made a difference’: Minister

State Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said the Government had questions to answer.

“Has the Government dropped the ball when it comes to planned burns and if so, has this made these fires worse than they should have been?” he asked.

PHOTO: Mr Waller acknowledged the burns were difficult during increasingly volatile weather conditions.  (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Premier Daniel Andrews defended his Government’s policy and said he was advised there had been extensive backburning around the Bunyip State Forest, where conditions allowed.

“Ultimately this is always a really difficult balance and we take the advice of our experts … they can only do backburning when it’s safe to do so and part of the extraordinarily dry conditions that we have at the moment means it’s very difficult to do that backburning,” he said.

“The strength of the fires we’ve seen over the last few days means that that fire either went through or went over the firebreaks that have been built over the last couple of years.”

Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said burning off would not have stopped the Bunyip fire.

“The intensity of this fire was enormous — no planned burn would have made a difference here,” she said.

Ms Neville conceded that increasingly dry seasons would make it more difficult to do controlled burns. 

Forest Fire Management Victoria was contacted for comment.

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