PARK WATCH September 2021 |

Fire affects us all, and it affects all of Victoria’s environment. So surely its management warrants ongoing, rigorous, independent evaluation, says Phil Ingamells.

If there is a conundrum in modern land management, it’s that our natural heritage, the native plants evolution has delivered to Victoria, is also the fuel that sets out, it seems, to roast us.

And climate change is rapidly – more rapidly than was predicted – exacerbating that situation.

We’ve had many of inquiries into fire management: several royal commissions, parliamentary inquiries, auditor evaluations and other processes costing vast amounts of money and expert hours. 

Yet we have established no permanent, independent overseer of fire management. Currently Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) assesses risk, delivers risk management, and then reports on its own effectiveness. That should change.

FFMV is largely a section within the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, with links to the CFA and Melbourne Water. It is required to abide by Victoria’s ‘Code of Fire Practice’ as revised after the 2009 Black Saturday fires. The Code summarises its objectives as:

To minimise the impact of major bushfires on human life, communities, essential and community infrastructure, industries, the economy and the environment. Human life will be afforded priority over all other considerations.

To maintain or improve the resilience of natural ecosystems and their ability to deliver services such as biodiversity, water, carbon storage and forest products.

It’s interesting to see how FFMV performs with at least two separate objectives taken from that list:

1. Minimising impacts on human life (the overriding fire management priority) 

While this is the critical and understandably well-supported first priority of the Code, it might be one of the least successfully managed objectives.

Bizarrely and quite unnecessarily, FFMV decided (on its own account!) to use buildings as a proxy for human lives – if we save the buildings we save lives, they said.

But that decision effectively resets ‘community infrastructure’ as the primary objective, contrary to the Code’s clear prioritisation of ‘human life’, and that brings consequences. 

It leads to the prioritisation of fuel reduction burns over other life-saving measures such as planning and rehearsing evacuation strategies for rural communities, and subsidising the installation of private bushfire shelters. These are well-understood strategies for saving lives, but remain pretty much unfunded in Victoria.

And scientific studies – many studies – tell us that most people come to grief in very severe fires, and that these are the very fires that fuel reduction has the least impact on. Fuel reduction in the right place at the right time has its uses, but it really can’t claim to be the life-saving panacea we need. 

2. Maintaining or improving the resilience of natural ecosystems

Despite the clear imperative here to “maintain or improve” natural ecosystems, including their biodiversity, FFMV has recently taken upon itself to downgrade the objective to “minimise the impact on” nature. I’m not sure FFMV’s staff, employed to administer the Code, should be the people to change an objective designed to adhere to Victorian and national environmental laws, and the International Convention on Biodiversity.

FFMV reports on the range of fire ‘age classes’, including the serious loss of old age classes, the long-unburnt forests and woodlands. However, FFMV fails to clarify in what ways that impacts on biodiversity, including the loss of tree hollows and hollow logs identified as critical habitat structures by a cohort of scientific studies from south-eastern Australia.

FFMV also fails to report at all on the impacts of its burns on threatened species, or rare and threatened habitat types (listed threatened Ecological Vegetation Classes).

There has been a promise for some time to report on Geometric Mean Abundance (GMA), a highly sophisticated measure of biodiversity condition, but Victoria’s Auditor General has noted that that reporting is yet to appear. And given that FFMV’s monitoring protocols across the state are not consistent, and that its data management is poor, we have little confidence that reporting on GMA can happen with sufficient scientific rigour.

Importantly, FFMV seems to take it upon itself to monitor and report on the impacts of fire on biodiversity, yet has only tenuous links with DELWP’s dedicated biodiversity section, including the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, DELWP’s own research arm. 

And as noted in the last edition of Park Watch, despite evidence that many intended fuel ‘reduction’ burns are effectively fuel ‘production’ burns, FFMV does not systematically (if ever?) monitor the return of fuel levels, or flammability levels, after performing its planned burns.

Effective bushfire risk management will not be achieved in Victoria until a skilled, integrated fire management planning and monitoring body has independent oversight of FFMV’s risk abatement programs. 


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