Victorian conservation groups have hit back at claims greenies and National Parks are culpable for the severity of the Black Saturday bushfires, blaming logging companies for monopolising the government personnel who undertake burning operations.

Melbourne Water Catchment Network and Otways Ranges Environment Network spokesperson Simon Birrell said the 2003 Esplin Inquiry into bushfires that year exposed how the logging industry have played a role in decreasing the number of fuel reduction fires.

The Esplin Inquiry found that the number of burns conducted after logging dominated, representing an average of 63% of prescribed burins each year compared with 33% for fuel reduction. However, the average area burnt each year due to logging is tiny at only 2% compared with 90% for fuel reduction burns. Why? The average size of each logging burn is 24ha compared with 700ha for each fuel reduction burn.

There are only very limited days available to safely conduct fuel reduction burns, and a limited pool of qualified personnel to undertake this dangerous work.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

Birrell also claimed the logging industry were guilty of causing fires. He said, “… the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s own data indicates that over the past two decades at least one in 20 wildfires have been started by logging industry practices.”

Institute of Foresters of Australia Victorian Chair Michael Ryan told Crikey that the only people the Black Saturday fires can be blamed on are arsonists. Ryan said:

The publicly accessible DSE website states that the number of fires from escaped planned burns are on average 9 out of 450 pear year making 2% of the causes of all fires. These planned burns include fuel reduction burns, post logging regeneration burns and ecological burns.

Escaped planned burns make up 2% of the causes of wildfires and 5% of the area of fires. It is therefore incorrect for Mr Birrell to state that at least one in 20 wildfires are started by logging practices. It is also worth noting that escaped planned burns occur under more mild autumn conditions than summer wildfires so do not tend to cause the same level of impact as summer wildfires.

ANU Forestry Professor Peter Kanowski told Crikey the logging industry essentially paid for regeneration burning services. He said, “all management costs associated with wood production (including regeneration burning) are met from the price paid to VicForests for the timber.”

Kanowski said it was likely there would be a greater number of staff employed to conduct burning operations this year:

Victoria’s 2008 Bushfire Management Strategy envisaged a substantial increase in fuel reduction burning across all tenures (not just production forests):

To carry out the burning program at the scale necessary will require a significant investment in trained and experienced firefighters across the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), its partner agencies and the Country Fire Authority (CFA).

A Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman told Crikey:

Over the last 12 months, more than 154,000 hectares of public land has been treated by planned burning, with only 2% percent of this area being in logging coupes.

Logging coupe regeneration burns are conducted jointly by VicForests, the authority responsible for managing native forest harvesting in Victoria and DSE. VicForests crews also assist DSE in conducting DSE burns. More importantly VicForests personnel play a significant role in fire suppression work during an fire. The equipment associated with timber harvesting, which is frequently located close to fires, is also an important resource for fire suppression.

Regeneration burns are generally not nearly as labour intensive as fuel reduction burns near houses.

DSE employs a large number of seasonal field staff each year. Most of the seasonal staff stayed on for autumn to assist with the burning program and some seasonal staff will begin work early in spring to assist permanent staff with burning and preparedness work.

An additional $21 million over four years, including 15 additional fire management staff, to assist with fire prevention works in outer metropolitan Melbourne parks was announced last week.

This comes on tops of $50 million over five years which was announced late last year to implement landscape mosaic burns.