The following letter was sent to the Inspector General for Emergency Management in Victoria by John Mulligan, an 84 year old fourth generation East Gippslander.
It was also sent to us.
I wish to reply to your request for submissions to the “consideration of performance targets for Bushfire Fuel Management on Public Land”.
As an 84 year old fourth generation East Gippslander born in Orbost and having spent my formative years and whole working life associated with the East Gippsland bush in various capacities and with the bush knowledge imparted to me by my forebears I believe I have a right to have my views on the above considered seriously.
Firstly, to look ahead we must first look back to see why we have reached this point of dangerous fires and heavy fuel loads. In my younger days the bush was generally much more open and scrub free than it is today with the result that fires were not as hot, also fires were going all summer as nobody had the wherewithal to put them out, what checked these fires was they simply ran out of fuel. Fires started by lightening and by man and by dormant embers from previous fires.
Nobody bothered about these fires unless they threatened property and at which time local people would simply back-burn to extinguish the fire or turn it, this was possible because of the much lower forest fuel loads than today.
In Far East Gippsland no village or isolated settlement has ever been burnt out by bushfire due largely to the lower fuel loads of the past. The same can’t be hoped for in the future as forest fuel loads are just too high for safety. They must be reduced.
It was only after the Bureaucracies took over forest management from the settlers and cattlemen and timber getters and introduced “No Burn” policies and extinguished all unplanned fire that fuel loads increased.
Bureaucratic management in the area of fuel loads and fire has failed the forest. The proof of this is there to see. Even the 1939 fires did not take hold in the far east even though we had fires on that terrible day they did not have the available fuel to take hold. I was there, I remember that day. And this was because the “No Burn” policies had not yet been able to be policed in the far east. Since then however bureaucratic management took over from the local people and natures lightening strikes limiting burning and enabling forest fuels to build up until 1983 when we had the terrible 1983 Cann River fires. I was involved then also. It is 30+ years since then and the 250,000Ha of fire killed and regenerating forests which have had only minimal fuel reduction burning activities are now ready to explode when the right day comes. While fighting that 83 fire I saw a great fire ball of perhaps 100 or 150 metre diameter jump from the fire front which was half a mile away from us and land near us and then roll on for about a mile crossing the river and lighting everything as it went.
This fire ball for want of a better description was a rolling ball of flame burning embers and smoke and eucalypt gas with tremendous power as it wrenched trees apart as it passed. I ask what value are small strategic burns, as proposed, under conditions such as this.
A similar situation was that of the Canberra fire of 02/03. The huge neglected fuel loads in the Brindabella’s with the heat releasing the explosive eucalypt gases let those fires roll through paved streets and manicured lawns etc. so what hope could small strategic burns have of slowing such fires.
No, the only way to prevent future catastrophes is to reduce the fuel loads in the forests, because on a “bad day” of which we have one every 20-50 years the heavy fuel on the forest floor creates sufficient heat for eucalypt leaves to release the highly volatile eucalypt gas which causes the fire to behave and spread in many funny and unpredictable ways.
Many of the people in charge of the fire planning have not experienced these terrible extreme conditions when a fire becomes an inferno.
Also in 1952 on one “bad day” I saw fire jump about half a mile across an arm of the Mallacoota Lake.
Small strategic burns are not the answer and will only lead to loss of life and property, and will also kill what is left of our forests bio diversity and forest industries including National Parks. The other major negative effect to the lack of adequate Fuel Reduction Burning in the wider forests is the damage to waterways due to accelerated run-off after wildfire causing erosion and siltation. The damage and fire killed forests of the 02 and 06/07 fires demonstrate this. General forest health is being ignored.
The overloaded forest fuel loads that we now have can be attributed to the lack of practical bush sense and knowledge together with incompetence by those academically trained bureaucrats in charge over a period of years coupled with the fact that decisions on what to do and when, are controlled by the people far removed from the bush with a “one case fits all” mentality and not allowing for the variability of conditions from one district to another, local bushmen both inside and outside the departments know how and when and where to burn but are overruled by idealistic risk averse academics.
Yes there is always an element of risk but low risks that have to be taken if we are to control the fuel loads. Nothing like the greater risk of having major fires if we don’t attend to the fuel loads.
You mention the implementation of a (a) “Hectare based target” or a (b) “Bushfire Risk Reduction target”.
To deal with (a) The recent Royal Commission required that a minimum of 5% of the total forested area be fuel reduced each year. I and many other people familiar with the bush, particularly the far east of the State believe this target is way too low, it should be a minimum of 15% at least if we are ever to get fuel loads back and maintained to a manageable level and consequently a reduction in the risk of major fires.
In regards to (b) “Bushfire Risk Reduction target” – The only way for the bushfire risk to be reduced is to carry out sufficient Fuel Reduction Burning to the order of 15% minimum of total area. But I understand that this is meant to mean small strategic burns as opposed to Broad scale Forest Burning. If this is the case then thinking that small strategic burns near settlements will protect the settlement from a major fire from neglected forests on a “bad” fire day for 2 reasons outlined previously are ludicrous and are what could best be described as a “Bandaid” solution.
If the DELWP carried out adequate fuel reduction burning there would be no role for Emergency Services in Forest Management.
As I understand it the suggested move away from the Minimum 5% burning target was suggested by Mr N Comry. Mr Comry was appointed as Implementation Monitor of the Royal Commission. As such it is not his place to make recommendations, these were already made by the Royal Commission at great cost to the Victorian taxpayer.
What is the point of a Royal Commission if the government is not going to adhere to its recommendations? I don’t believe Mr Comry has sufficient personal bush experience or knowledge to make such recommendations. Is he being the mouthpiece for the green conservation movement that is opposed to Fuel Reduction Burning?
The increasing incidence of Mega Forest Fires worldwide is on the increase which was outlined at the Worldland Fire Conference in South Africa in 2011. Although no recommendations were given the inference was taken that on a worldwide basis this developing phenomena is due to the old age practices of maintenance burning by the native peoples being gradually phased out. We should take note.
In suggesting a move away from broad scale fuel reduction burning to small “strategic” burns indicates that DEL WP and/or Emergency Services have lost their way and don’t know how to handle the forests.
In the south west of Western Australia the present day problems in the Kauri and Jarrah forests are very similar to what we face in the far east. I attach a copy of a letter from Roger Underwood explaining misconceptions and conflict of opinion over management relating to their recent Northcliffe fire.
I sincerely hope Inspector General that this review will take note of the experienced views of older foresters and country people otherwise we are faced with huge losses of life, property, forests, bio diversity etc and huge costs.