PARK WATCH Article March 2023 |

Misinformation is rife in debates about fire management in Victoria. It must be challenged, says Phil Ingamells

For years now, VNPA has been critical of the incapacity of the agencies managing fire safety in this state: currently that’s Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV)*. Our land managers seem to have been subservient to a litany of inherited myths, and display a puzzling lack of curiosity over recent research.

An important element of that research shows that fuel reduction burns will be effective for a few years, but can be followed by a couple of decades of greatly increased growth of flammable shrubs, followed over the long-term by relatively open and less flammable understoreys.

Publication of those important studies has failed to alter fire management in Victoria; it hasn’t even prompted FFMV to implement a monitoring program whereby the changes in forest composition and structure are measured, over time, after management burns are performed.

Indeed since the 1930s, when the Victorian Government began formally recording its fuel reduction burns, there has been no program to monitor the results of those burns: no recording of changes in flammability levels over time, no documentation of understorey species changes or, for that matter, no measurement of effective increases in public safety.

It is surely extraordinary that a succession of government departments with responsibility for the wellbeing of the community, not to mention the wellbeing of our great natural heritage, should have continued for so long without giving us (let alone themselves) any independent, objective evaluation of their burn programs.

The community might also be to blame – we have taken them on faith.

In recent years, there has been a growing call for the reinstatement of Aboriginal burning practices, and those programs, albeit at a small scale, are being trialled in locations across Victoria. They are very much part of the movement towards Traditional Owner joint management of our national parks and other public land, a movement that has been supported and facilitated by the broad nature conservation community, including VNPA.

In general, joint management of our parks has started out well: a recent management plan for Barmah National Park, and a visitor strategy for Lake Tyers (Bung Yarnda) State Park are among a number of fine examples.

And Aboriginal burning programs could have the capacity to challenge our stuck-in-a-rut fire management programs. Pre-1788 Aboriginal fire management, at its best, must necessarily have been based on an accumulation of observations of the impacts of fire.

If you were burning to increase the abundance of an edible tuber, fruit, or weavable sedge, it would be important to know what had failed, what had worked, and keep building on that knowledge over generations.

It was surely, in its way, science.

But any hope that fire management by FFMV might be due for a rebirth under the influence of Aboriginal methods of observation is proving optimistic; indeed it just might be running off the rails.

An article late last year in The Conversation, ‘How 1970s conservation laws turned this ‘paradise on Earth’ into a tinderbox’, summarised the findings of a peer-reviewed paper generated from the hallowed halls of Melbourne University and published in the respected international journal, Fire.

That paper carried an even more confronting title: ‘The Curse of Conservation: Empirical Evidence Demonstrating That Changes in Land-Use Legislation Drove Catastrophic Bushfires in Southeast Australia‘. It has been cheered in some circles, but it has also attracted an avalanche of claims from well-informed people that it contained misleading statements and came to unjustifiable conclusions.

It seems to have been driven by a lingering annoyance that the declaration of wilderness areas was a coloniser’s notion that negated Aboriginal occupation of those areas. But wilderness areas (and indeed most national parks) were largely fostered by the community’s need to seek refuge from the industrial age – from the coloniser’s assault on the land.

Victorian law establishes Wilderness to be land that ‘has not been substantially modified by the influences of European settlement’ and that in restoring a declared Wilderness Area, only ‘the removal of evidence of developments of non-Aboriginal origin’ is allowed. There was no attempt to hide or deny Aboriginal occupation.

The paper then claims that Victoria’s Land Conservation Act 1970 ‘prohibited burning by settler landholders’. The Act, in fact, makes no mention of burning, and the investigative body it set up, the highly reputable Land Conservation Council, was an advisory body – it had no authority to prohibit anything.

The burning rights of farmers, especially those with grazing rights on public land, were largely removed under the Forests Act 1958, following a recommendation from a 1946 Royal Commission into Forest Grazing which partly blamed the 1939 Black Friday bushfires on the burning of the bush by graziers. (Interestingly, the Royal Commission pointed out back then that the burning of forest grazing licences promoted a growth in more flammable scrub.)

Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the paper is its unsubstantiated claim that ‘settler burning’ mimicked Aboriginal burning, that Gippsland’s farmers and graziers recognised the importance of Aboriginal fire management and had carried on that tradition.

It’s a very generous rewriting of history, given that settler farmers had driven Aboriginal people from their land and, in so many cases, murdered the original occupants. It’s a notion that, surely, deserves re-examination by the authors.

There are other substantial errors identified in the paper, including the use of a solitary East Gippsland pollen core to draw conclusions on fire frequency across the state. And the bold statement that the authors’ data demonstrates ‘that catastrophic bushfires first impacted the local area immediately following the prohibition of settler burning in 1970’, ignores a long history of post-settlement bushfires in the region.

Other criticisms of the paper include its failure to recognise that weather has been the overwhelming cause of large fires in Victoria, and that under climate change that threat grows.

Our natural areas are complex beyond reckoning, yet they survived and evolved over hundreds of millions of years without the help of Traditional Owner management, and without the strong management hand of FFMV.

These areas have been so abused and fragmented over the last 200 years that they now clearly need a helping hand. But anyone, and any institution, claiming with certainty that they know best how to manage the bush should take a deep breath, look around, and think some more.

There is still a lot of learning to be done. And management of our remarkable natural heritage will depend on the respectful application of that learning.

*Forest Fire Management Victoria includes staff from DEECA (Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action), Parks Victoria, VicForests and Melbourne Water. Legally, FFMV is responsible for all fire management on public land in Victoria, including national parks and other conservation areas.