Bushfires give rise to competing emotions in loggers. On one hand, they generate an enormous amount of work, especially in building firebreaks. But bushfires are also a threat – fire destroys trees, and therefore threatens livelihoods. It’s perhaps the only time loggers’ interests align with those of conservationists.

But there are serious questions about the expense and effectiveness of fire control lines, and a mounting body of evidence that building firebreaks is logging by another name.

At the peak of the 2003 bushfires in Victoria, a decision was made by the Victorian Department of Sustainability and the Environment (DSE) to cut a fire control line along the Yalmy Road, separating the Snowy River National Park and a neighbouring state forest.

The work was performed by a former DSE employee who, according to the Victorian Auditor General, “was employed as the chief executive officer of a hardwood logging company that worked for a syndicate of sawmills in East Gippsland.” Here’s how the AG’s report, published in May 2005, characterised his work on Yalmy Road:

In constructing the control line, logs were taken from the Snowy River National Park and processed at local sawmills in contravention of the requirements of the National Parks Act 1975…

DSE’s decision to salvage timber from the Yalmy fire control line compromised its fire suppression effort. Trees with a high fire hazard were not removed, while trees with a low fire hazard but containing high quality timber, were removed.

[A]ccording to observations made by the investigation team, the width of the control line appeared to vary according to the quality of the sawlog material present in the surrounding forest.

Allowing a key logging industry figure to play a lead role in the construction of the control line, created a clear conflict of interest … [I]t was clear that the manner in which much of the control line was constructed varied from normal practice and provided benefits to the logging industry.

And here’s a brief list of the laws that were broken and codes of practice that were breached:

National Parks Act 1975
Forests Act 1958
Accident Compensation (Occupational Health and Safety) Act 1996
Code of Practice of Fire Management on Public Land
Code of Practice for Safety in Forest Operations
Code of Practice for Timber Production

The individual fingered in the AG’s report has never been charged.

Building fire control lines is a matter of policy for the Victorian DSE, whose professed aim is to protect Victoria’s water catchments. Ken King, Executive Director at the Land and Fire Management Division, told Crikey:

[The strategic firebreaks that cut into Melbourne’s water catchments] increase the safety of the state’s paid and volunteer firefighters. In addition, they save critical firefighting time during a fire as crews won’t have to spend the hours, days and weeks it can take to construct effective fire breaks during a wildfire incident, and give us the best possible chance to protect Melbourne’s water supply from fire.

King points out that fire control lines are “typically twenty to forty metres wide. Their design is based on decades of independent scientific research combined with real-world firefighting experience in Victoria, Australia and around the world.” The reality is not so tidy, as evidenced by the comments of Victoria’s Auditor General. Groups like the Central Highlands Alliance also disagree:

Even the most conservative fire managers are very cynical about fire breaks. Firebreaks are not usually where you want them, they cost an enormous amount to maintain, and fires still cross them. It’s literally like building freeway size dirt roads which actually increase fire risk by drying out forests.

Yarra Ranges National Park: Illegal logging, or creating a firebreak?

And now Victoria’s fire control lines are getting attention at a federal level. Just this week the Department of the Environment and Water Resources (DEWR) announced an investigation into timber taken from the Yarra Ranges National Park during the 2006-2007 bushfires. As The Age reported on Sunday:

Logging occurred in areas known to house Leadbeaters possums and Baw Baw frogs, which are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s red list of critically endangered animals and are protected under state and national laws.

The Victorian National Parks Association has also asked the Auditor-General to investigate the removal of saleable timber, which, it alleges, was illegal. DSE, which authorised the removal, denied wrongdoing.

DEWR could do well to broaden their gaze. They might be surprised by what else they find inside the DSE’s filing cabinets, not to mention the logbooks of Victoria’s sawmills and pulp plants.