Risk management vs random burning: a reply

We’ve received a prompt reply to the questions we put to the Environment and the Bushfire Response Ministers yesterday.

Readers will remember that our question was simple:

–the government is trumpeting its achievement in setting out to burn 5% of public land every year.
–at the same time it’s developing a risk management policy, which essentially implies that you only burn where it’s really needed.
–so, how do these contradictory approaches mesh with each other?

The reply from the Minister’s office doesn’t answer the question, but it does clarify one thing:

‘The Strategic Bushfire Management Plans are currently being finalised and will highlight the Coalition Government’s commitment to delivering a fuel reduction program that is focused on reducing the risk of bushfires to lives, property and assets, in addition to implementing a hectare based target recommended by the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.’

In other words, the Government is going to implement both a risk based and a target policy–at the same time. This is in spite of the fact that the Royal Commission Implementation Monitor recommends the second be reconsidered in favour of the first. Bafflingly, the ministerial reply ends by approvingly quoting the Monitor, as if he is in favour of such an incoherent approach.

Here’s the Government’s letter in full. Readers can make up their own minds about its argument:

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Yee–Haah! On the runaway horse!

The Minister for Police, Emergency Services and Bushfire Response, Kim Wells, has today issued a press release on the State Government’s achievements in planned burning. The release is mainly concerned with publicising increased cooperation between DEPI and the CFA; it includes an obligatory electioneering flavour in the form of comparisons between the CFA budget under Labor and the budget under the Coalition—naturally in the latter’s favour.

All of this can be taken on its merits. What is of interest to us, however, is the tremendous satisfaction the Minister expresses in the burning program: “The Coalition Government’s planned burning achievements last year reached a 30 year high and over four years has carried out planned burns more than 700,000 hectares of public land.’

Although this sentence is spectacularly ungrammatical, we get the gist: area burned is what the Government is proud of.

Representatives of FOBIF and numerous other enviro groups are gearing up to attend a DEPI ‘Strategic Bushfire Management Reform & Environment Workshop’ in Creswick on October 10. The agenda for this workshop includes sessions on planning, risk management and ecological monitoring.

At the moment, all of these worthy activities are subject the five per cent target promoted in the press release. This policy effectively decrees that no matter what your research finds, you’ll still burn the same area of land around the state. Until the Government [and the Opposition] get off this runaway horse, all the research and monitoring in the world will end up where it has often gone in the past: into a dusty cupboard, never to be seen again.

We’ve written the letter below to the Minister asking for him clarify how the target sits with risk management. Our letter was forwarded to the Environment Minister, suggesting that the two ministers aren’t actually coordinating their activities. We’ll publish the reply when it comes:

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Reducing your weeds may reduce your rates


Volunteers injecting wheel cactus on a property near Cairn Curran. Photo courtesy of Tarrangower Cactus Control Group.

The Mount Alexander Shire Council offers subsidised rates to landholders who have undertaken environmental protection works on their property. It is a yearly rate reduction on properties when the owners can demonstrate that they have completed eligible environmental work activities.

As well, our Council has recently introduced a rate rebate for landholders who have a conservation covenant on their land under either Trust for Nature or Section 69 Conservation Forests and Land Act 1987. The Shire currently has approximately 45 ratepayers who have already chosen to enter into a permanent legal agreement under these schemes. They are managing and protecting 558 hectares of high quality native vegetation across the municipality.

The Council’s Healthy Environment Team are the people to ring for further information on these initiatives (5471 1700). You can also find out more on the Counci’s website.

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Scaling the ‘mini Monk of Muckleford’

It was a glorious, warm, sunny day when FOBIF walkers took off from the poppet head mine in the Muckleford State Forest and Muckleford Conservation Reserve for the September walk. The mine has now been opened up so that you can stand on top of the grate and look down into the drop below. Parks is in the middle of completing an information sign board.

The group meandered through the ironbarks, up to the ‘mini monk of Muckleford’ to have a break. Floral displays included plenty of gorse bitter pea, pink bells, pink fingers, wax lip orchids, common beard heath, and erect guinea flower. The lunch break featured the company of a well-put-upon shingleback, who was trying to get some rest in the sun.
We’re sorry we missed the climate change rally, but we were busy engaging with the Muckleford forest.

The following photos were taken by Noel Young. Click to enlarge.

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The time to get out is NOW

It’s always a good time to get out for a stroll in our bushlands: all seasons have their appeal. Arguably, though, this year seems to be peaking right now for orchids and wildflowers. Given that we’ve had a pretty dry few weeks, the peak might be short–so, to repeat the old commercial slogan: Season ends soon! Act now!

Chewton-Fryerstown Road, September 20: now's the time to get out and have a prowl around.

Chewton-Fryerstown Road, September 20: now’s the time to get out and have a prowl around.

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A cracking day

About 20 people gathered for the second Youth Walk of the year, funded with a Youth Grant from the Mount Alexander Shire Council. Young FOBIF member, Nioka, led the walk through the Eureka Reef interpretive trail, taking in some historic sites and stopping to look at the Billy Buttons and Greenhood orchids. Then the walkers went up to the Monk to take in the views and have a quick break. They then walked down the Monk and on to the Poverty Gully Water Race, taking in a couple of patches of Crimson Spider Orchids on the way.

Mmmm...Stackhousia or orchid? Walkers take a look at what's on offer at the Monk.

Mmmm…Stackhousia or orchid? Walkers take a look at what’s on offer at the Monk.

The walked finished after two hours, ending back at the Eureka Reef carpark for a feed of Bubble and Squeak Burgers hot off the BBQ. It was a cracking day, and the group went off happy and full. One young walker, Holly, was met at the end of the walk by her parents and off they went to Fryerstown for a second bush walk for the day!

Um...where did they come from? Poverty gully: cheaper than the East West tunnel, and more interesting and useful.

Um…where did they come from?

On September 28 the spring walk for children up to the age of 12 with their families will take place at Kaweka Reserve between 10am and 12pm.  Walkers are meeting in Hargreaves Street between Turner St and Halford Street at 10 am. For more information on this walk contact Naomi Raftery on 0422 585 585.

Among the delights on offer to Sunday's walkers: Spider orchid and Billy Buttons.

Among the delights on offer to Sunday’s walkers: Spider orchid and Billy Buttons.

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Fire protection: what should be the priorities?

The Victorian National Parks Association has made its submission to the current draft Fire Operations Plan. Since the VNPA covers statewide fire protection problems much better than we could do, we print its ‘general overview’ of its submission below:


The VNPA has long held concerns about the level of planned burning in Victoria, and the justifications given for the Fire Operations Plans.

In short, the level of burning is dictated by the 5% annual burn target recommended by the Victoria Bushfires Royal Commission (VBRC). However we note that in the last three reports from the VBRC’s Implementation Monitor, Neil Comrie has strongly advised that the target be reconsidered, because it is unachievable and counterproductive. He says in his last (and final) report that it “will not necessarily reduce the bushfire risk to life and property, and may have adverse environmental outcomes”.

Further, Mr Comrie also pointed out that the VBRC’s recommendations were not to be taken in isolation from each other. That means that Recommendation 56, to burn 5% of public land annually, should be considered in the context of other recommendations that are also designed to save lives, such as:

• Recommendation 57, which asks for an annual report on “prescribed burning outcomes in a manner that meets public accountability objectives”. Although not specifically mentioned in Rec 57, “public accountability” would clearly include the effectiveness of the burn program, especially the cost-effectiveness of the program in reaching the prime objective of the program: saving lives. There has never been a public assessment of the actual effectiveness of the program, despite outcries from the scientific community.

We believe it is high time for an independent assessment of the cost-effectiveness of the burn program as a tool to save lives, and an independent assessment of its impacts on biodiversity.

• Recommendation 4, which asks for the “encouragement of personal shelters around homes”. This recommendation emerged after the urgent call by the VBRC, in its earlier interim report, for the development of an Australian Standard for home bushfire shelters/bunkers. As far as we can see, there is no material widely distributed by DEPI that advises householders to install bunkers, even though well-designed bunkers clearly save lives and avoid the high risk of trying to flee a fire.

• Recommendation 20, which stresses the importance of rapid despatch of aircraft. While aspects of this recommendation have been adopted, and in many instances DEPI’s capability for rapid attack has been demonstrated very successfully, there have been other instances when aircraft have not been available, rendering the call for staff to be ‘on standby’ somewhat purposeless. FOPs should include the need for a rapid attack capability appropriate to the area concerned.

• Recommendation 1, which asks that “local solutions are tailored to and known to local communities through local bushfire planning”.

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What are our ‘high value ecosystem areas’ [and how do we know?]

On Monday August 25 the Department of the Environment and Primary Industries hosted a meeting with representatives of enviro groups from the West Central Risk Management area.

The point of the meeting was to discuss current and future fire planning in this area, which extends from north east of Huntly to south west of Ballarat, and includes Werribee, the Macedon Ranges and Sunbury. Given that only about a dozen community representatives were able to attend [most of them from the Mount Alexander region] the meeting didn’t actually represent environmental groups of communities throughout this area.

Middleton Creek, declared a 'high value ecosystem area' in the government's risk management strategy. here's a question: is 'risk management' compatible with a blunt policy of burning five per cent of public land?

Middleton Creek, declared a ‘high value ecosystem area’ in the government’s risk management strategy. Here’s a question: is ‘risk management’ compatible with a blunt policy of burning five per cent of public land?

As we have reported previously, the Department is talking a lot about ‘risk management’, the approach which, it has been hinted, may take over in fire protection from the very crude and destructive ‘five per cent’ approach, which has involved trashing huge areas of Victoria to no good effect.

Risk management was the talking point at Monday’s meeting. It’s been hard to find out exactly what this means on the ground, so the big achievement on Monday was the unveiling of a map of the area identifying assets for which serious risk assessments are to be made for the purposes of strategic bushfire management.

These assets come in three categories: priority communities, priority infrastructure and high value ecosystems.

The first two of these categories are relatively uncontroversial. In our area, for example, priority communities are Maldon, Harcourt, Castlemaine, McKenzie Hill, Chewton, Elphinstone, Taradale and Fryerstown. Priority infrastructure includes transmission lines and water treatment plant.

From our point of view, the interesting part of the briefing was the nomination of four ‘high value ecosystem areas’ in our region: Mount Alexander, Muckleford forest, a section of Kalimna Park, and a section of bushland apparently encompassing parts of the Tarilta valley and the south end of the Diggings Park near Middleton Creek and Wewak Track.
While we don’t dispute the value of these places, FOBIF representatives at the meeting couldn’t figure out the criteria whereby they, and no other places, were so nominated. The decision making process was outlined, but without access to the supporting documents attendees found it hard to judge this process.

The crude maps supplied by DEPI, for example, seemed to show that the nominated section of Kalimna does not correspond to Eltham Copper Butterfly colonies, which should be a major reason for the park’s special treatment.

The Muckleford Forest section includes areas severely burned in 2012, and others slated for future burns.

And the Tarilta-Middleton Creek area includes sections trashed by DSE in ‘control burns’ in recent years. It also includes the Amanda’s Track area, slated for burning in the current Fire Operations Plan.

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Where do the plantations fit in the Fire Operations Plan?

Residents living near the Hancock Moonlight Flat pine plantations have been informed by company foresters that the plantations are to be harvested and resown this coming season. This finally puts to rest the story that the plantations were slated to be cut and then allowed to revert to bushland under the care of Parks Victoria.

Harvested section of the Moonlight Flat plantation: it is not at all clear how the pines fit into fuel reduction strategies on the adjoining public land.

Harvested section of the Moonlight Flat plantation: it is not at all clear how the pines fit into fuel reduction strategies on the adjoining public land.

In its submission to the draft Fire Operations Plan, FOBIF has requested that the plantations be incorporated into the fire protection strategy for the adjoining public land. We’ve made this request before, without result. It has been consistently surprising to discover how relaxed authorities are about the fire risk from the pines, or how ready they are to say that safety issues are the responsibility of the management company. Our efforts to find out some detail about the fire protection plan for the pines have been completely without success.

Our submission to the draft Fire Operations Plan is as follows:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the current FOP draft.

We acknowledge your response to the matters we raised in our 2012 and 2013 submissions. In spite of some modifications to the plan, however, our general concerns remain substantially the same:

• We believe that the five per cent target is skewing burning operations away from strictly safety concerns towards achievement of burn coverage which has little relevance to safety or ecological health, and may be damaging to both. We believe that it should be replaced by the kind of risk based approach recommended by the Royal Commission Implementation Monitor [and supported in theory by DEPI, we have been told].
• We remain disturbed by the unavailability of burn plans and post burn assessments, in spite of the requirements explicitly set out in the Code of Practice.
• We are particularly concerned about the relatively large area burns zoned LMZ [for example, in the Muckleford/Maldon and Amanda’s Track areas], and would like to see the risk management assessments and specific ecological intentions in these burns.

We would like to add the following points:

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7 & 28 September 2014 – Youth & Family Bushwalks


Click to enlarge.

The Spring Youth Bushwalk will be held on Sunday 7 September in Poverty Gully. Young FOBIF member, Nioka Mellick-Cooper, received a grant last year from the Mount Alexander Shire Council’s Youth Grants Program to run bush walks around Castlemaine for younger people.

The first youth bushwalk in March saw an eager group of people walk 5km through the Muckleford Forest and explore Dunn’s Reef and the Red White and Blue Mine.

The next walk will be a bit longer. It will start with the Eureka Reef interpretive trail and walkers will make our way up to the Monk for some wonderful views, and then back down to walk along the Poverty Gully water race, and through the Box and Ironbark forests of the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park.

“It’s great exercise, and it’s a lot of fun to explore the bush,” say Nioka. “You never know what you might see when you’re in the forest.”

The walk is supervised by adults, and participants are taken to and from the walk site by buses.Walkers are meeting at Continuing Education in Templeton Street at 10am. Both adults and teenagers are welcome. Lunch is provided at the end of the walk, and interested people are encouraged to book on 5472 4609.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Three weeks later (September 28) the spring walk for children up to the age of 12 with their families will take place at Kaweka Reserve between 10am and 12pm.  Walkers are meeting in Hargreaves Street between Turner St and Halford Street at 10 am. For more information on this walk click on the flyer at left or contact Naomi Raftery on 0422 585 585.

Cassia Read with children on the Autumn walk.

Cassia Read with children on the Autumn walk.

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