Fuel reduction burning remains something of a contentious issue in Victoria, but that hasn’t deterred the state’s Department of Sustainability and Environment.

Pre-empting the findings of the Victorian Royal Commission and with hot weather predicted, another half dozen or so fires were lit by the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) last Friday in East Gippsland, part of a vast number planned for the entire state. It’s all on their website, with quotes from Minister Gavin Jennings. The Department’s site also states: “Over the past four years more than 400,000 hectares of planned burning has been conducted.”

Never mind that the worth of fuel reduction burning will be at the core of the Royal Commission’s deliberations. But then this is what the Deopartment does. Despite the impression created since the fatal fires, the state has been vigorously and repeatedly burned over many years. Let’s not forget that any fire acts to reduce fuel load, even major “natural fires”. Victoria has likely never had so much of its forests and native vegetation burned in any decade of its history. Major fires burned 1.3 million hectares in 2003, 1.05 million hectares burned 2006/07 and roughly 400,000 hectares were razed in the most recent fires.

This is in addition to dozens of fires in national parks, as part of public and private land fuel reduction burning, ecological burning, prescribed burning, regeneration burning for the timber industry etc. There are now more than a dozen names for fires that seem to mask the nature and extent of burning. More than 3 million hectares has been burnt since 2003.

A prominent Victorian scientist reported seeing smoke across the entire state from dozens of fuel reduction etc. burns as he flew to Sydney in April 2007. Yet when he crossed the border into NSW there was not a single fire from there to Sydney. Same bush, same bush culture — so why?

If the Royal Commission does not have the capacity to generate significant independent research how can it guarantee the veracity of the data it, and taxpayers, are relying on?

And why did so many scientists come out calling for more fuel reduction burning? The media gave expert after expert a run as they condemned the government for not doing enough fuel reduction burning. Journalists from ABC and other media organisations routinely asked questions based on the assumption that there was “not enough” fuel reduction burning.

Why didn’t the Department of Sustainability and Environment or their Minister Gavin Jennings correct this misconception about “not enough burning”? Was DSE linked in any way to the people who called for increased fuel reduction burning? Who profits from fires? Was the Minister Gavin Jennings mislead? Perhaps there is a common sense explanation for all of this … but if there is, what is it?

Now, seven weeks after the fires, there are calls from politicians and people affected by the fires for roadside trees to be removed — but what would be left is grass and grass fires have killed more Victorians per head of people affected than bushfires – in Lara, Streatham, Deans Marsh etc.

The Royal Commission needs to sort this mess out, and let Victorians know where the boundaries between truth and understandable emotional responses are.

Many living in the bush — even timber industry workers — say that burning the bush does not always make it safer from future fires. Dead solid standing trees, often killed in these fires, are very hard to put out if they light up in subsequent fires. The fires of 2006/7 were said to have burned faster and hotter in areas burnt in 2003 in the Alps. And by some reports the recent Dargo fires seemed to rip through bush already burned in 2003 and 2007. Are these local misconceptions?

Only objective research and analysis from the Royal Commission will discover the truth — they must find out how “effective” fuel reduction burning has been, and whether it has always reduced fuel loads and made bush less likely to burn — or made the situation worse.

Surely enough of Victoria has been burned now. There must at least be a moratorium on DSE lighting up fires until the Royal Commission brings down its interim findings in less than six months.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW