Fuel reduction programs fall short, hearing told


VICTORIA’S fuel-reduction programs are inadequate and the state should burn off between 5 and 10 per cent of public land each year, senior counsel assisting told the Bushfires Royal Commission yesterday.
Jack Rush, QC, said Victoria urgently needed to increase burns to reduce the bushfire risk, with a minimum annual target of 385,000 hectares.
“The recommendations are not made because they are easy,” he said. “They are made because there was not sufficient fuel-reduction burning done in the past . . . The state of Victoria needs to accept the great need to work towards that sort of target to ensure people are properly protected, where the state is able to protect them, from bushfire.”
Counsel’s written submission argued that most burns should be between 500 and 1000 hectares, and that between 70 and 90 per cent of an area chosen for a planned burn should be burned: “Near towns it is sought to protect, very large areas for treatment might be required.”
It said planned burns moderated the spread of the Beechworth fire on Black Saturday and slowed the Kilmore fire in many places. “Even in catastrophic conditions, fuel reduction by planned burning can reduce spotting and ember[s].” In moderate conditions, it made it much more likely a fire would be suppressed, it said.
Mr Rush said compulsory acquisition of forested land in private hands might have to be considered because private owners could not be forced to comply with burns.
Victoria now burns about 130,000 hectares a year, or less than 2 per cent of public land.
Kerri Judd, SC, said the state backed a progressive increase in planned burning, but resisted the idea of a target. She also criticised the figure of 385,000 hectares as ill-informed because some public land, such as sand dunes and wet forest, was not treatable by fire.
The state’s submission estimated there were 5.5 million treatable hectares in total, and 5 per cent of that would be about 275,000 hectares. The state agreed that burning was one of the few ways to reduce fuel to limit the ignition, speed and intensity of bushfires. But it warned that planned burning was not a “silver bullet” in reducing risk and had to be considered with other strategies.
Complications included the limited range of weather conditions under which burns could be done.
The state’s submission also said that in forests such as those around Kinglake, which contain mountain ash, it would not be possible to burn the recommended 70 per cent of an area.