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Planned burns and clearing will not stop catastrophic fire events: report

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Media release

Download reportPrescribed burns did not significantly slow the spread of bushfire in the catastrophic conditions of Black Saturday, states a new report released today.

The report, commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), The Wilderness Society and the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA), analyses the driving influences of the February 7 fires and looks at how the fires passed through and affected different areas of land. It was submitted to the Royal Commission today.

"Conservation groups support the use of science‐based prescribed burns to help protect people, properties and the environment. We need to be strategic about fire management and ensure planned burns are done at the right time and in the right place," VNPA spokesperson Megan Clinton said.

"However, the evidence in this report suggests prescribed burns are not a silver bullet solution to protecting human lives because the effectiveness of fuel reduction burning is significantly reduced on days of catastrophic fire weather such as those experienced on Black Saturday.

"To protect human lives this fire season, we need to focus on effective early warnings, clear community understanding of the stay or go policy and the 51 recommendations in the Royal Commission's interim report."

Richard Hughes from The Wilderness Society said it would be dangerous to give people a false sense of security that a sole focus on prescribed burning and vegetation clearing will protect lives and property.

"When the Fire Danger Index (FDI) is below 50, controlled burning is an effective bushfire management tool. However, the report suggests that when the FDI is above 50 - such as during the Black Saturday fires when it reached between 120 and 190 - controlled burns have a vastly reduced effectiveness," he said.

"On Black Saturday, maps of the severity and spread of the fires show that an extensive proportion of the burnt area was private land where native vegetation had been removed or significantly reduced. This suggests vegetation clearance, including firebreaks, will not prevent the spread of fires under catastrophic weather conditions and should only be considered as one part of a broader fire management strategy."

ACF's Lindsay Hesketh said fire management also needed to take account of climate change.

"Climate change is having a significant influence on the extent of droughts, maximum temperatures, decreased humidity levels and low moisture content of native vegetation and pastoral lands; all major influences on the intensity of bushfire behaviour," he said.

"CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology tell us parts of Victoria will face up to 65 per cent more days of extreme fire risk by 2020, and 230 per cent more by mid‐century. We need to protect all Victorians by working with, not against our environment, and this means finding ways to improve nature's resilience to firestorms and climate change."

In light of this report, the groups are calling for the Royal Commission to conduct an evidence-based investigation into the effectiveness of various fire management tools, including prescribed burning and land management, and how they protect lives, property and the environment.

The report was submitted to the Royal Commission today.

Media contact: Sacha Myers, VNPA and TWS media officer, 0417 017 844 Josh Meadows, ACF media adviser, 0439 342 992.


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