In response to questions regarding the impact of fires and logging on water supply catchments Tim Holding, the Minister for Water, stated on Jon Faine ABC 774 this morning:

HOLDING: …In the case of fires, particularly where those fires are extensive the regrowth can absorb large amounts of water that would otherwise have been drawn into the storage. And in a sense John that is why it’s so important in the years ahead that we move away from relying almost exclusively on water stored in reservoirs to provide our water security. We need to diversify our water sources, that’s one of the reasons why desalination, water recycling and those other projects are so important.

The 1939 fires also burnt portions of the Melbourne water supply catchment and this was salvage logged. Is this the plan now to open up the rest of Upper Yarra Dam catchment for Melbourne’s water supply for salvage logging? What about other water supplies with forested catchments — will they be logged too? Is this where the future timber for pulp mills and woodchips will come from?

Will the impact of fires on the water supply catchments and this policy, especially its origins, be considered by the Royal Commission? Will they have the resources? How will they source expertise without a vested interest or from the “more burns and log lobbies”? It may be all over bar the shouting by the time they publish their findings.

Right now, it is impossible to know which backburns are being used to put out persistent fires and which are being used to burn the remaining bush. Bulldozers are cutting breaks through areas of unburnt bush as you read — though it appears many bulldozed fire breaks in the bush failed last Saturday week. If the reluctance to put out the fire in Wilson’s Promontory, or merely on existing fire breaks, is anything to go by, these backburns could last a couple of months if they we do not have heavy rain.

If the flurry of media demanding that all bush be burnt every seven to 10 years (depending on which lobbyist is speaking) was acted on, we would see the extinction of all hollow dependent species of birds and animals. This can only be raised at a time when so many people’s lives have been affected and rebuttal of even this stupidity will attract derision and scorn from a stressed out community.

Yet Russell Rees, the Chief Fire Officer of Country Fire Authority (on the ABC’s Lateline last night) does not see last Saturday week’s fire that way:

RUSSELL REES: Every bit of fuel in the state of Victoria is dry. And it’s dry because of the environment. It’s not dry because there hasn’t been fuel reduction burning. It’s simply a case of the fuel and the state it’s in.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: The authorities point out that with such intense conditions, even grass that’s just a few inches long can be a pathway for fire to jump from property to property.

RUSSELL REES: It’s just exploding. And that’s the environment that we’re in, because of that long run dry period; the combination of the heatwave, the 12 years of drought. Our fuel’s in a very difficult environment and even the light fuels, the fuels that don’t normally dry out are now dry. So, it’s not an argument about fuel reduction burning per se.

The back burning onto last week’s bushfires is showing every sign of going on and on and on — as it did in 2003 and 2007. Surely these fires need to be put out. If standing trees are dangerous, then what about active fire when a hot day arrives?

The Victorian Royal Commission already appears weak. Every backburn that is designed to burn bush for other reasons than directly stopping fire flouts it before it has started — and this could go on for 18 months or more.

Sure it is open-ended, but it is almost designed to avoid looking at possibly the most intense period of fuel reduction and similar fires in Victoria’s history, 2000 — 2007. The independent research capacity of the Royal Commission is yet to be described.

It will take public submissions, but what about the resources available to the public to make those submissions? The submissions from the many dodgy environment-like groups, those operating as fronts for political parties, government departments and various lobbies will be well resourced, no doubt. How does a legal person evaluate this information? What resources will they have to double check everything presented to them?

Going with the most qualified advice too is risky when ‘professorialships’ can be ‘established’ with outside funding to universities and other qualifications awarded as ‘honorary.’ A determined well funded lobby could outflank the Royal Commission and load it with so much material that it runs out of time. They may have already.

Peter Fray

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