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The Royal Commission and planned burning

This is a brief summary of the VNPA's involvement in the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission's planned burning investigations, including a summary of our final recommendations to the Commission.

It was an unusual situation.

Victoria's natural history - the evolution of our fire-related, and fire-prone, biodiversity - was under the scrutiny of some of the state's best legal minds.

Over a couple of weeks in February, Victoria's Bushfires Royal Commission was focusing on the vexed issue of planned burning. It had already received nearly 500 submissions on the subject, more than on any other issue associated with the fires of Black Saturday, and it was time to sort things out.

For a bunch of lawyers not all well-versed in the world of nature, they did well.

 

The Rocky Valley area in the Alpine National Park.

The Rocky Valley area, Alpine National Park, recovering from the 2003 fire and from cattle grazing. We have little understanding of capacity of alpine systems (and many other ecosystems) to handle frequent fire. Photo: Phil Ingamells

Under enormous pressure to radically increase fuel reduction burning across Victoria (public safety, after all, has understandably driven the formation of the Commission), they clearly understood that the stuff that fuels fires is also our natural heritage. And they were bravely determined to resolve any conflicts that arose.

The Commission's strategy was to appoint a panel of seven experts on fire and planned burning (listed at the bottom of this article).

Before the panel formally convened, each member was asked to supply written answers to a series of questions. The Commission's Counsel (their lawyers) then set about resolving any differences over two days, in the middle of the two weeks of hearings on the subject.

The VNPA, represented by Brendan Sydes, Chief Solicitor for the Environment Defenders Office, was granted "Leave to Appear" for this bank of hearings, giving us the right to cross-examine witnesses and respond to the recommendations of the Commission's own Counsel Assisting.

 

How effective is fuel reduction?

One clear fact that emerged from the hearings should never be forgotten. No achievable amount of fuel reduction burning can substantially reduce the severity of fire on days like Black Saturday.

The resultant "megafire" on that day behaved in ways that seem unimaginable. Indeed NSW fire ecologist Ross Bradstock pointed out that fire severity was sometimes higher on the leeward side of slopes. Given the ferocity of the fire on the windward slopes, that's quite a statement.

It is very important that communities are not given a false, and dangerous, sense of security when planned burns take place near their homes.

But evidence before the Commission also made it fairly clear that in less severe conditions, fuel reduction can reduce the severity of fire enough to allow other defense strategies to take place.

 

Where should fuel reduction happen?

The evidence on this was a bit confusing. Early statements from the Expert Panel suggested there was general agreement to burn 5-10% of Victoria's public land annually - at least 380,000 hectares, or three times the current hectare target.

That's roughly equal to the (somewhat discredited) recommendations of the 2007 Parliamentary Inquiry. But under questioning it turned out that the panel could only agree that this applied to the "foothill forests" and even then, information was lacking.

Professor Ross Bradstock, for example, said:

"I think what we said was if you went for something around 5 per cent in foothill forests that it was our consensus that at least that would be okay in terms of vegetation responses, though we noted that there is very little information about animals."

Importantly the panel generally agreed that the understanding of appropriate fire regimes elsewhere in the state (for both fuel reduction and for biodiversity) was inadequate at best, and often quite poor.

Dr Michael Clarke, in a clarifying statement, said:

"However scientific evidence of the appropriate level of prescribed burning (percentage of the landscape or habitat type) needed to achieve desirable reductions in risk, while avoiding ecological harm, is not available for most other habitat types in the state. Consequently, in my opinion it is inappropriate to apply a target of 5-10% across the public estate of Victoria.

"Similar risk and ecological analyses to those conducted in foothill forests need to be conducted in other habitats with the goal of setting appropriately tailored targets for these habitats."

 

What should happen?

Because of the levels of uncertainty in burning, the VNPA is adamant that we need to set in place a rigorous process for developing appropriate targets for each ecological community. That is not a reason to do no burning now. But it is a reason to call any targets the Commission establishes "interim" targets.

The VNPA made a number of recommendations to the Commission, among them:

  • Annual targets should be expressed as a percentage of treatable land, rather than a broad statewide hectare target, and be subject to monitoring for effectiveness for fuel reduction and for biodiversity protection.
  • DSE should identify and prescribe a preferred temporal and spatial burn mosaic specific to each ecological vegetation class (EVC), designed by fire ecologists with input from botanists, zoologists, entomologists, mycologists and microbiologists.
  • DSE's current zoning system for planned burns should continue, and burns in the Ecological Management Zone (Zone 3) should be performed according to clear prescriptions designed to achieve identified long-term biodiversity objectives.
  • There should be an accountable ecological management stream within Parks Victoria and DSE, to allow management prescriptions to be applied, supervised and adequately resourced and, importantly, supported at all levels of the agencies.
  • DSE and Parks Victoria should ensure that adequate knowledge, skills and resources, and a dedicated recurrent budget, are available for a comprehensive long-term program monitoring the effectiveness of fuel reduction and ecological burns.
  • There should be an independent audit by an accredited auditor, of the effectiveness of DSE's planned burning program, every four years. The audit should be followed by a formal re-assessment by DSE of prescriptions and targets for planned fuel reduction burns and ecological burns.

The Bushfire Royal Commission's final report has been archived online at www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au.

 

The members of the Commission's planned burning panel were:

  • Phil Cheney (former head, CSIRO bushfire research).
  • Professor Mark Adams (Bushfire CRC); Prof. Ross Bradstock (fire ecologist, Univ. Wollongong).
  • Associate Professor Michael Clarke (biologist, La Trobe Univ.).
  • Dr Malcolm Gill (fire ecologist, Fenner School, ANU).
  • Dr Kevin Tolhurst (fire ecologist, Univ. of Melb.).
  • Dr Jerry Williams (ex-USA Forest Service).
  • Transcripts of the two days of panel hearings (Block 5 on 22-23 Feb, 2010) can be found at www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au.