PARK WATCH Article December 2021 |

As Victoria embarks on a truly massive fuel break construction program, the justifications for it are wearing thin, says Campaigner Phil Ingamells.

The clearing of vegetation for fire breaks, or fuel breaks, has always been a bit of a hit or miss strategy for protecting the community and the environment from fire. Breaks can contain a fire in mild weather, but do nothing to stop fires in extreme weather when spotting by burning embers can reach kilometres ahead. Breaks have also been known to create wind tunnels that can drive a fire. 

They do serve as a point from which to conduct remote fuel reduction burns, or back burns in the face of fire, but these operations are also under serious question. 

So why is Victoria engaging in an unprecedented fire break construction program, one that far exceeds any other program in the nation?   

The Victorian Government has allocated $35 million to a statewide Strategic Fuel Break Program aiming at a 1447-kilometre expansion of fire breaks by the 2022 financial year. 

That’s just a start. Victoria’s Chief Fire Officer expects the program could expand to a system of some 7000 kilometres of breaks across Victoria, each up to 40 metres wide. That’s more than the distance to Darwin and back, and in area it’s equal to more than half of Wilsons Promontory National Park.

Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) claims that this program is in response to recommendations made in two Victorian inquiries into the fires of Black Summer: one by Victoria’s Auditor-General (VAGO) and another by the Inspector General for Emergency Management (IGEM). 

But, oddly, there is no such recommendation in either of those reports; indeed, fire breaks scarcely rate a mention.

Where the proposal does appear is in the official Victorian Government response to IGEM’s ‘Recommendation 6’. That response (presumably written by Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) and accepted by the ministers involved) flags a “major expansion of the strategic fuel break network”.

But Recommendation 6 doesn’t call for that; it just asks for more mulching and slashing where fuel reduction burning is difficult, such as near communities. 

What’s driving this? 

Is it motivated by a perceived need to employ skilled operators as the native logging industry is scaled down? Is it motivated by a need to ‘do something’ in the face of climate-induced fire?

We don’t know because there has been no public justification for the project other than the fictional claim that two inquiries called for it.

There’s another problem.

Before a farmer cuts down a native tree, they are obliged, if the felling is unavoidable, to finance an ‘offset’: an equivalent level of environmental restoration somewhere that at least balances the loss. 

The obligation on our state government, however, is far less onerous. Public land managers must offer an environmental ‘counterbalance’, but the need for fire protection measures offers an escape clause for the ‘unavoidable’ criterion, and there appears to be no obligation for FFMV to assess any counterbalancing obligations before they leap into action.

And we have been told by FFMV that they don’t record the number of significant habitat trees, including critical hollow-bearing trees, that are removed in these operations. That makes any effective counterbalancing impossible. 

Worryingly, one counterbalancing option available to FFMV is ‘ecological thinning’. They can compensate for the felling of many thousands of hectares of trees – by felling some more!

Fire management in Victoria needs a skilled, well-resourced, independent umpire. 


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