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 A ‘fire challenge’

FOBIF representatives attended a ‘fire challenge’ session run by the Victorian National Parks Association in Melbourne on November 3.

The evening was devoted to considering key recommendations of the recent Royal Commission on management burning, and the chief speaker was Phil Ingamells.

In brief, the major problem which the VNPA and other conservation organisations have with the Commission is to do with its recommendation 56:

‘The State fund and commit to implementing a long-term program of prescribed burning based on an annual rolling target of 5 per cent minimum of public land.’

There are several problems with this recommendation. The main one, from a biodiversity point of view, is that it treats widely divergent bioregions in the same way. The Big Desert, for example, would be treated exactly like East Gippsland. Further, among other things, it discourages highly strategic planning by encouraging a focus on hectares burned, and it encourages more burning in remote areas where large areas can be burned with relative ease.

The recommendation is a curious one, seemingly at odds with the advice of the Commission’s scientific panel, which had pointed out that a burn conducted strategically [that is, with careful consideration to exactly what was being achieved] is many times more effective than one carried out with an eye only to area covered. The scientists had recommended a trial program in foothill forests.

There is a further, equally disturbing feature of the 5% target. It is obvious that if this target is achieved, then 100% of the public land estate will be burned every twentyears—and if there are bushfires [as there always will be], then many areas will be burned much more often.

This is a purely mechanical approach to burning, which takes account neither of safety nor of ecological values. Scientists dealing with the effects of fire on the environment use the concept of ‘tolerable fire frequencies’: these naturally vary in different ecosystems, but the Commission’s recommendations would allow little flexibility on the matter.

By comparison, the current Bendigo fire protection plan is based on zones, and each zone is burned [in theory] on the basis of a survey of ‘overall fuel hazard’, and in the case of flora and fauna management zones, ‘in accordance with ecological values’. The frequency of burning can vary from seven to fifty years. One zone excludes management burning altogether. A 2002 report by DSE’s Fire Ecology Working Group recommended a fire cycle of 30 years in Box Ironbark country.

The VNPA is planning to revisit this aspect of the Commission’s recommendations over the next twelve months, via

--a statewide round table of experts on fire management

--regional community workshops designed to focus attention on what are local needs, as distinct from one size fits all formulae, and

--education and communication campaigns.

Conservation organisations have strongly supported the other four recommendations of the Commission, which would greatly strengthen research activity related to fire management. [Nov. 11 2010]


Mamunya Photo Exhibition and the State Festival

FOBIF's exhibition of photos of local flora and fauna, 'Now Look Here' concluded its season at the Castlemaine Market Building at the end of October. The exhibition will have a repeat showing, with a somewhat different selection of pictures, at the Bold Cafe in Wesley Hill during the State Festival next year.

We are intending to run similar shows at least annually, as a public education venture. Members who have photos of local interest from the natural history point of view are invited to send them to us at for presentation on the photo gallery of this site, or in an exhibition, or both. [10/11/2010]

Inviting invaders

Members will have had no trouble noticing brilliant displays of wildflowers along streets and intersections in towns of the Mount Alexander shire in recent weeks. These orange and yellow flowers are gazanias, the subject of a timely item in the Natural Newstead blog [] . The site contains a photo and useful information, including the fact that this plant is listed by the CSIRO publication 'Jumping the fence'  as one of the top ten weeds available for sale in nurseries and plant shops in Victoria. [This publication is freely available on the internet.]

FOBIF tried in 2004 to persuade the Mount Alexander Shire Council to institute an education campaign to persuade people not to plant out this weed, which is capable of spreading to bushland. Council understandably baulked at the idea. The problem is that many people consider this to be a very pretty plant--and in fact, like a lot of weeds, it is. It also has the quality which distinguishes all weeds: that is, a tendency to take over and force other plants out, thereby reducing the kind of biodiversity which is essential for land health.

Gazanias are rampant in towns all over northern Victoria, and probably can't be brought under control without a serious change in the mindset of gardeners. Like all garden escapees, it has been spread by people who believe that it is more beautiful than our local flowers. They're wrong, of course, as you can see by glancing at our photo gallery--or our exhibition in the Castlemaine Market Building. [21/10/2010]

Burning Concerns

FOBIF has received a reply to our concerns over the Bendigo Fire Operations Plan from DSE Fire Manager Simon Brown.

We had written to DSE expressing our continued support for the Fire Operations Plan, but frustration at what we perceived as slackness in implementing the findings of ecological monitoring of fire operations [see below]. In particular we were concerned that ecological recommendations for the Limestone Track burn had not made their way into the DSE working document for fire managers.

Simon Brown has explained that the document in question was not complete because it had 'missed rollover burns from the previous FOP.' We're not quite sure what this means, but are assured that the matter has been rectified.

On the subject of the proposed burn of a section of Kalimna Park near Lawson Parade, Simon Brown points out that 'from a strategic perspective this burn would complete a barrier  to the spread of wildfire into the adjoining private property by linking' previous burns. This is clear from DSE maps on the subject, and we have no objection to the principle involved, though we continue to be frustrated by the fact that the area in question is close to one of Castlemaine's biggest fire risks--ie, the Moonlight Flat Pine Plantations.  Protective strategies for this plantation are quite unclear, and we've been completely unsuccessful in getting any information about them from Hancock Plantations.

In the mean time, volunteers from the Friends of Kalimna Park are engaged in counting sweet bursaria plants in the Lawson Pde area on behalf of DSE. The burn has been deferred beyond the 2010-2013 Fire Operations planning process. This particular area is currently giving its best display of wildflowers for many years. [9/10/2010]

Fire Operations Plans: a gap in the records?

DSE has supplied local environment groups with a summary of ecological information that has been used in developing the Bendigo Fire Operations Plan for 2010.

It is an excel spreadsheet with proposed operations listed together with information about the biodiversity values of each burn site, and the way in which DSE plans to manage those values in conducting its burn operations.

This seems a practical way of going about running management burns.

The problem is that there are serious, and inexplicable gaps in the document. A case in point is the proposed Limestone Track burn, which is on the western side of the Porcupine Ridge road, adjacent to the area burned this year along the Wewak and Loop Tracks. The proposed area covers the beautiful and quite remote Tarilta gorge.

Both FOBIF and the Castlemaine Field Naturalists talked to DSE and Parks Victoria in 2008 about this area.  We raised the fact that two rare plants—Grevillea obtecta and Pultenea graveolens—were in the area, and suggested that careful monitoring of the Wewak Track burn be used to guide DSE in its approach to the follow up Limestone Track burn. We thought it was important to find out how these species responded to fire.

As far as we know, monitoring was done before the Wewak burn.

Yet no information about this appears on the instructions for DSE fire managers for the Limestone track area.

This can only mean one of two things: either no post fire monitoring was done on these threatened species in the Wewak area, or the information obtained was filed with no intention of using it to guide further operations involving these plants.

We already have our suspicions that the Wewak Track burn was conducted this year with complete disregard for biodiversity values [see below]. It is doubly concerning to think that DSE is going to approach the Limestone Track area in the same spirit. [9/9/2010]

VNPA response to Bushfire Royal Commission

The Victorian National Parks Association has issued a detailed response to the findings of the Royal Commission on Bushfires.

On fuel reduction burning, for example, the VNPA response is


Weed clearance on Forest Creek

FOBIF has used a Parks Victoria grant to embark on a bridal creeper clearance effort alongside the Great Dividing Trail near Forest Creek in Chewton. The site in question is north of the creek, north east of the small pine plantation, around a very large yellow box tree, the environs of which have become completely infested with the weed. This clearance project could become very long term, as the area is infested with a wide variety of environmental weeds. Though we are persisting with this type of project, as with our long term effort in Wattle Gully, we believe it is urgent to develop a long term strategy to tackle the growing weed problem. Parks Victoria has conducted some very valuable work on weeds, particularly in the grooming of gorse along Forest Creek, against wheel cactus on Mount Tarrengower, and the recent promotion of bridal creeper rust, but the criticisms of the Auditor General of Parks' inability to develop an overall, long term plan of attack on weeds remains valid. [28/8/2010]


Draft fire plans released

DSE has released its draft fire operations plans for 2010/11--2012/13 for public consideration.

These plans are available for public viewing at the DSE office in Matheson St Castlemaine during August on Fridays from 9 to 4, and on Thursday 12th August from 12.30--8.00 pm. You can offer comments on the plans at these places.

The plans can also  be seen at the Mount Alexander Shire offices Monday to Friday from 9 to 4.45, and at the Maldon visitor centre any day from 9 to 5.

FOBIF has consistently supported the principle behind these plans, because the zoning system they apply makes a clear distinction between areas close to settlement and those out in the bush: they are a far more intelligent approach to vegetation management than the one implied in calls to burn five per cent of everything, for example.

We have, however, serious reservations about the way the plans are implemented, as our readers will know.

We are also concerned about the fact that the plans apply only to public land. In the case of the Mount Alexander region, it seems ridiculous that the fire management systems of the bushland and the pine plantations are in different hands. And, as far as we can tell, there's not much communication between the two managements. We wrote to Hancock plantations in June expressing our concerns on this matter, but have received no reply.

On the subject of the draft DSE plans, our initial examination has revealed one cause for concern: the Department's intention to burn areas of Forest Creek which have been recently revegetated. This operation will have to be sensitively handled, to avoid destroying important biodiversity and amenity gains. [10/8/2010]

Getting the goats: an update

Following our communication to DSE regarding a long standing goat problem in the Fryers Forest [see below] the Department has agreed in principle to sending shooters into the forest to try to reduce the numbers in this herd. The problem is that though numerous, the goats move around in an annoyingly elusive manner. We'd be grateful to any member who contacts us promptly on sighting goats in this area. [June 2010]

Weeds along the Loddon

Participants in FOBIF's May walk along the Loddon were entranced by the extremely picturesque, gorge like valley of the river in its upper reaches south of Glenluce [see our photo gallery]. We were also appalled by the invasion of English Broom, a weed that is depressingly common in the wetter areas around Daylesford and Creswick, but not so common in Box Ironbark woodlands. We have enquired of DSE as to the Department's approach to this problem, and have been informed that an ongoing weed control program at the Glenlyon end is moving downriver towards the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park.  It will be a welcome sight to see some weed reduction in this area: the river between Vaughan and Glenluce is grossly infested with blackberry, something we have been raising with Parks Victoria for some years. [June 2010]

A New Guide to Indigenous Plants of Castlemaine and Surrounds

Castlemaine Field Naturalists have produced an excellent and practical fold out guide to local plants with the assistance of FOBIF, Connecting Country, the Norman Wettenhall Foundation and other local organisations. It will be launched by John Landy, AC, CBO, MBE on July 22 in Castlemaine.

The information guide was produced as a resource for small block holders, farmers, town residents, schools, tourists, bushwalkers and anyone who loves the land.

It contains nearly a hundred illustrations of local flora, most in full colour, and can be carried easily in the pocket. It will be distributed among Landcare and other groups, and is available at a very modest cost from the Castlemaine Market Building. [June 2010]

Alien invasions: what is the truth?

At the end of May the State Auditor General released a report entitled Control of Invasive Plants and Animals in Victoria’s Parks

The report ‘examines the effectiveness of invasive species programs in national and state parks. In particular, the audit examined the governance arrangements, information systems, planning frameworks and on-ground activities targeting invasive species across the park network.’

Its conclusion: ‘How well Parks Victoria manages the invasive plant and animal threat in national and

state parks is generally unclear. Its planning is not robust, its data is inadequate and increasingly out of date, and its park management plans are also outdated and lack sufficient detail. In addition, monitoring and evaluation of invasive species management activities is inconsistent.

‘Good progress has been made in managing some invasive species in some parks, but an increasing reliance on short-term initiative funding to address a long-term problem is detrimental to the effectiveness of the effort across the park network.’

Among its other findings: ‘Recent policy emphasises a landscape scale approach—one that disregards

boundaries based on land ownership and use—to manage pervasive threats, such as invasive species. While progress has been made, Parks Victoria (PV) is yet to apply this approach consistently, and no agency is clearly responsible for balancing local and regional issues with statewide management priorities. There are no detailed outcomes

that the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) expects PV to achieve nor is there a performance framework to assess how effective PV has been in managing invasive species.

‘Around 75 per cent of all plant data and 57 per cent of animal data is over 10 years old, while around 30 per cent of plant and animal data is over 20 years old.’

There is nothing in the report to surprise FOBIF members: we have been complaining for years about the lack of resourcing for park management, and in particular are unhappy about the lack of monitoring of park activities, and an apparent inability to implement published policy. Local rangers have done some serious work on the ground, but the auditor general is spot on in highlighting the lack of an overall attack on the problem.

The report can be found at

It contains responses from DSE and Parks to the findings. They make no effort to defend themselves, but promise to do better.

Alien invasions: What is the truth? Part 2

Coincidentally, a week after the release of the AG’s report, FOBIF received a document from DSE called Weeds and Pests Initiative: making a difference on public land (2007-20110).

The document contains summaries of six regional projects, but does not counter any of the Auditor General’s damaging conclusions.

The State Opposition has highlighted the damaging nature of the AG’s report. We enquired of the shadow minister for the environment as to coalition policy on weeds, and were referred to

This site contains a general run of coalition policies, but to judge from it, the Opposition has even fewer initiatives than the Government on pest plants and animals. Its only policy directly attacking the feral problem is a proposal to reintroduce the fox and wild dog bounty. On the other hand, the Opposition proposes to reintroduce bee keeping into national parks, without any apparent interest in the feral dimension of this proposal. The Opposition appears to have no policy on weeds.

Getting the goats

FOBIF members have observed a herd of about fifty goats in the Columbine Creek area of the Fryers Forest in recent weeks. Goats have been a problem in this area for many years, and we suggested to DSE over a year ago that shooters should be brought in to the area to remove the herd. This is one feral problem it should be easy to get under control, and it's a pity it seems to be getting, if anything, a bit worse. We have once again asked DSE what their control plans are. [May 20 2010] 

Fire preparation works

DSE has written to numerous community groups asking for their suggestions about fire preparation works in the region. FOBIF has written with a series of suggestions as follows:
'The suggestions below are offered with the underlying assumption that strategic fuel reduction works around settlements are of much greater use than large area reduction burns in our woodlands, which are of dubious ecological value and in our view not much use as fire protection measures.

'We have prepared the list with the Bendigo Fire Protection Plan map in front of us, and believe that our suggestions are consistent with the aims of the plan, as they relate to asset protection, and that they would be of serious ecological benefit as well.

1. The feral pines which infest our woodlands should be removed. I refer to those around Mount Alexander and Harcourt, in the bushlands adjacent to the Moonlight Flat plantations, and in Chewton near the CFA station.

2. The pines in the Moonlight Flat plantation south of Clark’s road should be removed.

3. Pines should be removed south of Specimen Gully road, to widen the firebreak effect.

These last two measures would strengthen the effect of the asset protection strip north of Specimen Gully road, and help to allay well justified local fears of the fire risk presented by the plantation. We believe that the trees in question are not of great value.

4. Vegetation, mainly weeds [gorse, etc] along the Castlemaine town boundary in Kalimna Park should be groomed.

5. Weed control measures along Forest Creek in Chewton and up to Expedition Pass reservoir should be followed up.

6. Wattle Gully flat should be cleared of highly flammable pampas grass.
Road verges should be cleared of flammable weeds. We note that this seems to have been done quite well on the Campbell’s Creek Irishtown road.

7. Crown land north of the railway in Chewton, adjacent to the Castlemaine Diggings NHP, needs to be fuel reduced. This would strengthen the effect of the asset protection zone south of the railway line.

'We would like to emphasise that we believe that all fire protection works can and should be conducted with an eye on biodiversity protection. Some native vegetation [for example, sweet bursaria] is not particularly flammable. In conducting fuel reduction works, particularly on roadside reserves, attention should be paid to protecting vegetation which is no great fire risk, but is botanically valuable. ' [May 10 2010]



The Wewak Track fuel reduction burn

Description: Control Burn Zone
Photo: John Ellis, April 2010

In early April FOBIF representatives went down to the Wewak Track to look at a fuel reduction burn conducted by DSE two weeks before, in mid Autumn. The burn operation took place ten days after rain, and was followed a week later by a further rain period.

The area is marked Zone 3, ‘broad area reduced fuel mosaic,’ in the Bendigo Fire Protection Plan: ‘it is aimed to treat approximately 65% of each burning unit in any burning operation’ in this zone, according to the Plan. We have been told recently, however, that the aim is now to ‘treat at least 70%’ of each unit.

Our readers will remember that we had taken some interest in a burn in the same area in 2009, because of the particular richness of wildflowers in this part of the

Diggings Heritage Park. We had successfully argued for the exclusion of a small section of the area from burning because of its spectacular cover of matted bush pea [Pultenea pedunculata]. We also argued for care in the conduct of the operation because of the presence of the rare Fryerstown Grevillea and Scented bush pea.

The 2009 burn, of the perimeter of the marked zone—bounded by Porcupine Ridge, Wewak and Loop tracks—was a relatively mild mosaic, and recovery of vegetation seems good.

As in 2009, the objective of the 2010 burn, [of the interior of this zone], was ‘to provide an irregular mosaic of areas of fuel reduction which will complement works in adjacent fuel management zones.’

The photos in our gallery show the burn zone. It seems to us more like a bushfire than a controlled operation, but we are withholding judgment till we can get more information on monitoring, and see what kind of tree recovery happens in Spring. Certainly, as the photos show, there was insect activity in the ash shortly after the fire, and some grass was shooting after the rains which fell not long after the fire. On the other hand, shrub cover seems to have been obliterated.

We are also interested in what, if any, ecological objectives were in the minds of the DSE operatives who conducted the fire. The Fire Protection Plan stipulates that for Zone 3 ‘advice from flora and fauna biologists and Catchment Management officers will be sought as appropriate to ensure that fire frequency and intensity is within a preferred range for achieving broad based ecological…objectives.’ We are trying to find out what advice, if any, was given on this burn.

Our impression is that fuel reduction is the only objective of these operations. This is, arguably, a fair objective. The problem is that DSE also claims an ecological aim for such burns. We are sceptical of this claim—but we are trying, by lobbying and publicity, to keep the Government to its stated objectives in this matter.

Our long held position is that management operations to limit wildfire are justified: but that if the method you adopt has a more destructive ecological effect in the long term than a severe bushfire would have, then you risk ‘destroying the bush in order to save it.’ DSE, with its policy of ‘adaptive management’, claims to be improving its conduct of management operations in the light of past research, but we believe this claim to be quite unjustified.

We will follow up with new information as we get it, and publish new photos of the same area in Spring. [Autumn 2010]

What’s happened to our soils?

Fobif and Connecting Country representatives attended the regional soils forum in Bendigo on March 31. The forum offered some eye opening perspectives. Here’s a report from the CMA’s Ground Cover newsletter:

‘Dr Christine Jones…told the forum that the top soil depths at Ballarat had halved in the last 25 years, and that the water-holding capacity of Victorian soils in the first years of white settlement had been a whopping 20 times greater than now, due to the much higher organic matter (carbon) content.’

This presents a particular problem to farmers, and many of them are rising to the challenge, via the CMA’s ‘Farming for sustainable soils project’ and other similar programs. It is also a problem for our recovering bush, the topsoil of which was largely devastated in the gold rush. It is still startling to come across trees in bushland standing on what seem to be soil pedestals: they are evidence that a metre of soil has been lost since those trees took root.

Groundcover can be found at


Bendigo Enviro Groups meet local Pollies

On March 19 FOBIF representatives, together with members of other Bendigo region environment groups, met with local MPs Bob Cameron and Jacinta Allen, to express our concerns regarding DSE's management burning practices.

The group expressed two concerns. The first was that the Department was neglecting the clean up of dangerous wastelands close to townships, and concentrating its fuel reduction activities in woodlands relatively remote from settlements. The second was that DSE consistently flouts its own protocols in conducting its burning operations.

DSE's Code of Practice for fire management on public land requires it to conduct research on the effects of its management burns, and to use this research to improve each subsequent burn. This praiseworthy policy is called 'adaptive management.'

The problem is that none of those present at the meeting had ever been able to find an instance where DSE had in fact conducted credible research, and used that research to 'adapt' future practice.

This leads to concern that the management burning program could be ecologically damaging, without bringing the desired results in safety.

The matter of reduction burns is a vexed one. Bob Cameron and Jacinta Allen made it plain that they had been under pressure to increase the government's commitment to reduction burns. The scientific panel at the Royal Commission in February appeared to agree that such an expansion was desirable in an era of increased threat of mega fires. But the panel was also strong in its view that such a burning program should be accompanied [and modified] by extensive research, and implied that the present program is more concerned to burn lots of hectares, without due consideration as to the effects of the burns.

A danger looming in the medium term is that the Government will accept a recommendation to increase the area covered by fuel reduction burns, but avoid its responsibility to monitor the program for its ecological effects. If this happens, we will have been in the position of 'destroying the forests in order to save them.'


Biodiversity White Paper released


On December 9 2009 the Victorian Government released Securing Our Natural Future, a White Paper for land and biodiversity at a time of climate change. You can find a copy at .FOBIF contributed submissions in the runup process to this publication.

The White Paper, which is available on the internet, contains numerous good ideas on such matters as ecosystem resilience and supporting the creation of biolinks, and it has been received positively, if a little cautiously, by conservation organizations [for a summary of their views, see the press release on the subject at ]. 

There are good reasons for sobriety on the subject of the effectiveness of the paper. The following two are typical:

First, there is concern that good ideas may not be accompanied by political will. For example, Chapter 6 deals, among other things, with riparian areas. It notes that ‘livestock need to be managed to prevent direct access to the beds and banks of streams and wetlands.’ [p 92]. The government had the opportunity through the licensing system last year to exclude stock from river frontages, but wilted under pressure, and renewed the relevant licences. The White Paper recommends a gradualist policy on this matter, but you wonder just how gradual governments should be when the action to be taken is clear: get stock away from rivers, and compensate farmers accordingly. It is disturbing that the Actions recommended by the paper lean heavily to the administrative: ‘Complete the current review…Reform arrangements…identify high priority frontages…Complete the management framework…’ [p 93] Such procedures could easily be used to conceal the lack of what really matters: courage and resources, and the need to act on  the numerous reviews, etc, which have already been completed.

Second, there is a depressing quota of material in the document which is in fact long standing policy which is not even now credibly implemented. An example is fire, where an ‘adaptive management’ approach is recommended, based on ‘continuous learning and improvement.’ [p 79]. This has been policy for some years now, and FOBIF and other conservation organizations in this region have been continually frustrated by the fact that there is very little evidence of ‘adaptive management’: that is, we do not see DSE operatives adjusting their practices in the light of monitoring and research on previous fire operations. They don’t have the resources, and in some cases they don’t seem to be interested in the ecological effects of management burns. 

Time will tell how serious the government is about its White Paper. In the mean time, we will perhaps be taking a copy to our next fire meeting with DSE managers. In particular we’ll be keen to draw their attention to page 88: “The Government… will build the ecological resilience of formal conservation reserves through an increased emphasis on the management of their natural values and ecosystem processes.”



“Legislative and governance arrangements for public land will be strengthened… to establish consistent principles and performance standards for ecological management.”

The paper contains interesting information in its appendices. In a map on page 120 of ‘social landscapes of rural Victoria’ Mount Alexander Shire is classified as ‘amenity farming’: that is, as a region where mainstream agriculture has been significantly replaced by other land uses, for example hobby farms or recreational blocks.[Feb 2010]

Northern Region Water Strategy released

The Sustainable Water Strategy for the Northern Region was released in November. The region covers the length of the Victorian Murray from the South Australian border to the Indi (or upper Murray), and much of its catchment, including Mount Alexander Shire. The document is available on the internet at or you can get a hard copy by ringing DSE at 136 186.

FOBIF made a brief submission to the draft strategy in 2008, arguing that ‘environmental flows’ should not be seen as in competition with people’s needs, and that the strategy should confront the growing problem of private dams. [see below]

On the first matter the document is not hopeful, pointing out that ‘environmental flows could be halved in the Murray and reduced by up to 70 per cent in the Goulburn system.’ This is not good news for communities on the Lower Murray

On the second matter, the strategy delicately points out that ‘water uses that were once insignificant now represent a larger proportion of total consumption.’ The question is whether dams carved out for essentially decorative reasons should be subject to stricter controls. On this matter the final strategy is a little stronger than the draft, offering among other options the prospect of withdrawing the absolute right of landowners under section 8 of the Water Act to build small dams, and instead obliging them to apply for a Section 51 licence, as commercial water users are now obliged to do. 

This is a sensitive and potentially expensive matter, and has already provoked some controversy in the local press. It needs to be pointed out that it is not only a conservationist concern. Last year the Nationals MP for Northern Victoria, Damien Drum, took this matter up. Referring to the ‘proliferation of small, wasteful dams’, he said

‘In our part of the state as much as 124 billion litres of water a year don’t make it to our creeks and streams because of the explosion in small, mostly unlicensed dams.

’We need to move towards eradicating small, inefficient dams. And we need to then return that water to agriculture and

There is a lot of useful information in this document, including a detailed and persuasive case against the building of more dams, one of the more tenacious and illusory ideas politicians come up with to solve the water problem. [Feb 2010]


FOBIF submission to the Royal Commission

Fobif has made a submission to the Royal Commission on the matter of planning of residential developments in fire prone areas. It will be posted in the documents section of our website soon. 

Bracewell St Fire

With the recent sad news of the arrest of two teenagers over this disastrous fire, our readers may be interested in looking at Bendigo conservationist Richard Goonan’s detailed report on the matter, soon to be posted in our documents section. His conclusions:


·        Predominantly (exotic) Grassy landscape attributes contributed the greatest area and most continuous fuel source throughout the fire area.

·        Forest fuels (indigenous vegetation) comprised a relatively small proportion of the overall fire area and available fuels, and primarily burnt following the wind change.

·        Exotic grasses provided highly flammable and well aerated fuels capable of rapid spot fire development, allowing the fire to spread across a mosaic of different landscape attributes.

·        Pampas Grass, although spatially limited, provided a significant fuel source that contributed to the escalation of the fire and its more rapid spread across potential barriers.

·        Houses most at risk from the fast moving, generally low intensity fire, were situated in isolation from dense urban housing, or were in loosely scattered groups. The presence of localised surrounding fuels contributed substantially to their susceptibility.

·        Fuel reduction burns within the fire area contributed little strategic outcomes/advantages, and assets were lost immediately adjacent to these.

·        Relatively large areas of existing bare ground substantially reduced the fire spread following the wind change, both directly by reducing the extent of the fire front, and indirectly through increasing the effectiveness of a recent fuel reduction burn. Without the recent fuel reduction burn, it is likely that the strategic value of the bare areas would have remained.

·        The overall fire area comprised both private and public land areas, the most important of these were grassy private land, unmanaged public land, and small areas of Pampas Grass with excessive fuel loads.

·        The management of wildfire risk and hazard cannot be effective if confined only to public land. Fire management planning must take account of surrounding private land, and enforce management zones across all tenures which reflect risks and hazards at a landscape scale.

·        The temporal effectiveness of fuel reduction burning is very limited, significantly reducing its value in long term effective and sustainable fire management, and in some cases fuel reduction burning increases fine fuel loads and facilitates rapid spot fire development and spread, such as occurred at sites within the Bracewell fire.

Richard’s report has been sent as a submission to the Royal Commission. It differs significantly from DSE and CFA submissions, and we look forward to seeing how the Commission sorts out the truth of the matter.

Wesley Hill Industrial Estate

FOBIF wrote to the Mount Alexander council in January applauding its imaginative approach to landscaping in this project, which includes utilization of a natural waterway and planting with local plants. We were (and are) concerned, however, that the Council’s definition of ‘local provenance’ is lax, and have asked for a tighter definition of what is planned.

While it is not directly our concern, we were disappointed that the works involved destruction of a large old oak tree on the site. Concern for the natural environment does not exclude sympathy for cultural heritage, and it is a pity that this large, old, beautiful and non noxious tree was destroyed. [Feb 2010]

National Parks Act Annual Report 2009: are we being monitored? 

This document has just been released. Among other information in it is the assertion on page 11 that ‘fire monitoring protocols examining the response of key species to fire have been applied’ in several National Parks, including Castlemaine Diggings NHP. We had not seen these protocols, or any evidence of their application, but asked David Major, Ranger in Charge, for a look at them. He has responded by referring us to the following DSE website: 

This site contains DSE documents outlining monitoring protocols, and offers access to the Fireweb/Argus system. This latter contains specific monitoring documents, though none refers to the Castlemaine Diggings Park.

Our main concern remains: there are numerous DSE documents over the years proposing procedures for monitoring and improving understanding of fire. We have yet to see this translated into changes in practice. However, we do recommend to those with the time and patience to apply for access to the Fireweb system. The more people taking a direct and informed interest in this matter the better.

‘Fire ecology program strategic directions’                                         
This new DSE document contains little that is not already in the 2004 ‘Guidelines and procedures for ecological burning’ and the 2005 ‘Code of practice for fire management’. The new material consists of an emphasis on landscape scale approaches, and the aim that ‘fire ecology is considered at all levels of fire management.’ [p 5]. If this latter aim is achieved in the field, it would be a real advance on past practices. We are entitled to be a little sceptical, however: on page 6 we read of the objective ‘to develop monitoring procedures to assess the adequacy of our land management models’. These monitoring procedures should already be in place. 30/11/09

Kalimna Park Management Burn, and other vegetation issues

This operation, discussed below, duly took place on November 3 2009. The burn appeared moderate and well managed.

FOBIF’s reservations about this exercise mainly centre around the fact that it took place in Spring. The fire took place at the height of the wildflower season, and its effects on plant reproduction will have to be monitored over the coming years. Our major concerns are related to the fire’s effect on seed production, the effect on recovery of the ongoing drought, and overgrazing by wallabies on regrowth plants.

We have also expressed concerns about vegetation clearance in the Castlemaine Botanical Gardens which, among other things, removed bursaria plants.

We believe that sensible vegetation management in this area is justified, but that this removal was unnecessary. Bursaria, apart from being essential to the survival of the Eltham Copper butterfly, is not especially flammable. In fact, it is recommended by some shires as a good plant for fire aware gardeners, and the Badger Creek CFA has put it into a demonstration garden designed for gardeners concerned about fire risk.

In this case, we believe that workers in the gardens were not properly briefed, and that better fire protection would have been achieved with a more discriminating approach to the job.

FOBIF’s concerns were aired in the Midland Express on November 3. [see below] Unfortunately the article in question skated over the main problem in this matter: namely, that not all vegetation is the same, and that it is a good idea to have a detailed knowledge of what you are doing when you are working in the bush--and in botanical gardens!

The Express article also contained a statement that DSE is not under undue pressure to undertake control burns. This unfortunate claim contradicts evidence repeatedly given to FOBIF and to Bendigo district environmentalists by DSE officers in recent months. In fact, DSE has been under pressure to increase its burns since the release of the Parliamentary Enquiry last year. 30/11/09

FOBIF warns against simplified approach to vegetation clearing
Sources in the Department of Sustainability have confirmed to us that sweet bursaria plants were cleared out of the Castlemaine gardens this month as a fire protection measure.

There’s a problem, though: this plant is widely known as a fire retardant.


The Badger Creek CFA have a display garden featuring bursaria, because it has a limiting effect on wildfire.


Sweet bursaria is listed on many guides as a good thing to plant in your garden because it resists burning.


It’s also essential for the survival of the Eltham Copper butterfly. We have one of the few colonies in Victoria of this rare and beautiful insect.


We understand that Council wants to engage in sensible vegetation management before the fire season--but it’s important that works be properly supervised by well informed people. In this case, it seems that workers were not told to look after bursaria plants.


We question the idea that vegetation clearing is the cure-all for our bushfire problems.


There’s no “one size fits all” approach in this matter. Some vegetation is very flammable. Some, like the bursaria, is not: having it around could actually slow a fire down.


There have been many calls for increased fuel reduction burning and other kinds of vegetation clearing. These often suggest that February’s fires would have been less severe if there had been more such burns.


In some cases this is true: the Bendigo fires might have been less severe if large stands of pampas grass weeds near Bracewell Street had been cleared.


In other cases the situation isn’t so clear.


We know that 77% of the area covered by the February fires was plantation, private land, or state forest, much of which had been significantly thinned and cool burned. We look forward to the Royal Commission’s assessment of how the fires were affected by this activity. [See the VNPA submission below]


FOBIF believes that there is a place for fuel reduction burns, properly managed.


A couple of years ago DSE conducted an efficient reduction burn on the Monk, south of Chewton, which did reduce fuel, while showing respect for the biodiversity of the area.


But we don’t believe that these exercises are a cure all for the bushfire threat. Badly done, or overdone, they are useless as fire protection, and environmentally damaging.


An example is the reduction burn conducted by DSE on Mount Alexander this year [see below]. It burned ten times the planned area, and destroyed 600 habitat trees. Sixty of these were older than European settlement.  And it’s arguable that the burn site has as much or more flammable fuel on the ground now as before this exercise.

Latrobe University Honours Brien Nelson
Latrobe University held an event in Bendigo on October 21 to honour Uncle Brien Nelson, senior elder of the Jaara people, as an associate of the University. Uncle Brien has been an important cultural leader in this region for many years, and FOBIF members will remember the role he played in the success of the two Mamunya festivals. Latrobe academic Gerry Gill spoke on the award, and Uncle Brien's response was a characteristic mixture of eloquence and self effacement, including his summing up: 'I never thought I'd be honoured by anything or anyone. I was happy just to be there.'  27/10/2009

Kalimna Photo Competition
The Friends of Kalimna Park invite photographers to submit photos of the Park to a competition for which they are offering a prize of $500 for adults and $200 for students. The purpose of the competition is to increase awareness of one of one of
Mount Alexander's best loved areas of bushland. Full details of the competition, including an entry form, can be found in the Documents section of this site. 27/10/2009

The Mount Alexander Fiasco: 1

FOBIF has unsuccessfully tried to get access to the DSE report on the management burn which escaped on Council to seek residents’ views on new housing near bush
Mount Alexander this year, and burned ten times the planned area.

We have been told that the report is ‘an internal document’. This lack of transparency only adds to the impression that the whole exercise was one of gross incompetence and/or neglect. Sources in DSE have confirmed that the fire was lit, then left overnight in the mistaken belief that it would go out in cool weather. The weather conditions, instead of putting out the fire, spread it.


Asked why DSE didn’t send someone to check the fire, we have been told that there were in fact patrols, but that no one was really clear whose responsibility it was to fix the problem, or even where the fire was supposed to go, so it just went its merry way.


What’s the moral of the story? Well, a senior DSE spokesman told us that that in future ‘clarities and responsibilities need to be refined’. These are just weasel words meaning, ‘Someone should be in charge.’ The same senior person suggested that although the damage on the Mountain was bad, it had to be seen ‘in context.’


This kind of nonsense strengthens our suspicion that those who are appointed to be protectors of the environment are more interested in policy speak than they are in doing their jobs. If so, they need to be watched more closely in everything they do.


We have repeatedly argued that fuel reduction burns are not the cure all answer to the bushfire threat. Nevertheless, they are useful if properly done. If they are not, they have the capacity to do serious damage. This is a classic case. No one has argued that we have been made one bit safer by this farce—but we have lost a precious part of our heritage. 12/10/09


The Mount Alexander fiasco 2: the damage

Richard Goonan of Bendigo has produced a report on the damage caused in the escaped management burn. It can be found in our Documents section. Of special significance:


‘Mt Alexander is recognised as one of the three most significant large tree sites in central Victoria due to the size of the reserve and the density of large trees (VEAC 2001). The higher elevation areas surrounding the summit and southern slopes are particularly important as the lower and northern slopes support a more dispersed tree cover. Over 600 significant habitat trees were destroyed due to the fuel reduction burn, which affected an area of 90 ha. More than 60 Pre-European trees (between 200-300 years old) were needlessly destroyed. In addition more than 100 recruits were also killed. Many were the only mature trees available to replace large habitat trees destroyed, therefore replacement will require seedlings, and these will take a minimum of 100 years to mature before producing hollows.’ 12/10/09


Proposed Kalimna Park Burn


DSE is proposing to burn a 27 ha area between Lawson Pde/Kalimna Tourist Road and the town this Spring. This burning exercise was originally planned for autumn next year or even the year after. It has been brought forward because the Castlemaine Township Plan for bushfires designates the Junior Secondary College as a safe place, and senior figures in DSE decided that a fuel reduction exercise on the Kalimna side of the College was a necessary part of this plan. In the process, the burn has been changed from category ‘Zone 3: broad area reduced fuel mosaic’, in which only about 65% of the proposed area would actually be burned, to something resembling an Asset Protection burn, in which a much higher proportion will be burned.


The zone in question is part of a pattern, of zones burned in recent years by DSE in an east west band designed to hold up a fire coming from the north side. Those wishing to see how this works will have to do some work going to the DSE website and searching for Fire Operations Plans.


This exercise is sensitive for several reasons. The first is that Spring fires are potentially very damaging to breeding birds, and could interrupt the flowering/seed production of plants. The second is that this particular area is a rich wildflower zone, and is frequently used by field naturalists, bird watchers and ordinary walkers, with and without dogs. The Kalimna Circuit walk occupies a large part of the area to be burnt. Thirdly, the burn zone is adjacent to colonies of the Eltham Copper Butterfly. Fourth, in recent years overgrazing by wallabies forced by drought closer to settlement has prevented regeneration after fire, causing the virtual disappearance of some species from the zone burned by DSE in 1997. And lastly, burns done in Spring could be slow in recovering if, as is predicted, we have a very hot summer.


It will be no news to our readers that land managers are under intense pressure to ‘do something’ to protect communities from lethal fire. In particular political authorities at the highest level have rushed to the judgment that ‘fuel load’ is the major if not the only determinant of fire severity, as witness the Parliamentary enquiry on bushfires [see article below]. In our view, fuel reduction has a part to play in fire protection, but the question of how much, when and where need to be very carefully considered. In particular, excessive removal of vegetation could have the opposite effect to the one intended: a fire driven by hot dry winds could travel much faster through sparser vegetation than through dense vegetation [see the VNPA submission below], and low fuel loads did not prevent or slow down fires in Bendigo in February.


In the present case we are pretty sure the management burn will cause significant ecological damage, which will have to be weighed against the safety gains achieved.


Representatives of FOBIF and Friends of Kalimna Park have met with DSE and Parks Victoria officers charged with conducting this exercise. They appear sensitive to the difficulty of their task. The stakes are high: in the short term, if a fire breaks out in this area, they will cop some blame almost whatever they do, because the only way of preventing bushfire absolutely is to concrete over the whole state. In this case the responsible officers have commissioned flora studies of the area and undertaken to take them into consideration in conducting the burn. Eltham copper butterfly areas will be protected, as will significant vegetation on which the butterfly depends. We intend to watch the recovery period carefully, and to press for protection from overgrazing where possible.


If, on the other hand, management burns contribute to a decline in biodiversity, the potential damage in the long term is serious. The recent dust storms north of our border had a cause much more direct and immediate than climate change: it is decline of vegetation cover as a result of overgrazing and other forms of mismanagement over a very long period of time. Dangerous as it can be, we need the bush: as Judge Stretton put it in the 1940s, ‘forest, soil and water form an inseparable trinity’. Damage the forest, and the other two are at risk—and there’s no need to point out how serious that is.


The NSW Conservation Council noted recently that ‘optimal fire regimes for fuel reduction will generally differ from optimal fire regimes for conserving biodiversity.’ The community needs to make careful decisions about how to deal with the conflict this presents. It can only do this with proper information and good leadership. We are not getting the latter from the State Government, which appears to be ignoring or pre empting the findings of the Royal Commission. In the mean time, we could well bear in mind the message offered by an Age editorialist: ‘Treeless towns won’t be fireproof, just ugly.’ 27/9/2009


Fire and the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission


FOBIF draws attention to two submissions made to the Commission by conservation organizations. These are not designed to argue the point about the matters before the Commission, but contain valuable information on what happened on Black Saturday, and what management issues arise from these events.


The VNPA/ACF/WS Submission.


This is a joint effort by the Victorian National Parks Association, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Society. You can get it by going to and clicking on Reports. 


It is a careful review of what exactly happened in February this year. The following points are of interest:


  • Most fires started on private land.


  • The area burnt across Victoria comprised state forests (43 per cent), timber

plantations (5 per cent), private land (29 per cent) and National Parks (23 per        cent).


  • Fires that started on private or leased land on 7 February were uncontrollable by

the time they arrived at the boundaries of National Parks (e.g. Kinglake and Yarra



  • Fires that started within parks and protected areas (e.g. Wilson’s Promontory and Mt Riddell in Yarra Ranges National Park) were mostly contained within National Parks; the exception being the fire in the Bunyip State Park.


  • The condition of vegetation plays a significant role in the intensity and spread of fire (i.e. there is evidence fire spreads more readily in modified and disturbed

vegetation. The report notes that older, undisturbed forest patches resisted the fire better than logged, thinned stands).


  • The number of extreme fire danger days already exceeds those predicted to occur

      in 2050.


  • The probability of previous prescribed burns slowing a head fire significantly

     decreases with increasing Forest Fire Danger Index.


  • On 7 February many areas of forest that had been treated with prescribed burns

      were still severely burnt because of the extreme conditions.



The IUCN/WCPA submission.


The International Union for the Conservation of Nature/World Commission on Protected Areas submission is to do with fire history and management issues more generally.


Worth noting:


“Prescribed burning is exactly what the term says – it is the application of low intensity fire to an area under a planned, prescribed or defined set of weather conditions, for a prescribed or defined outcomes (fuel reduction and / or ecological purposes). If the outcome is for fuel reduction then the prescriptions include a defined level of fuel removal, which is generally in the order of  25% to 50% of the fuel load existing. From experience, even where well determined weather conditions are defined for a burning program confusion often prevails as to whether a burn is to remove a percentage of the fuel by weight only or a defined percentage of the fuel over a defined percentage of the proposed burn area, or a fuel reduction from some presumably high level e.g. 20 tonnes per hectare to a defined low level generally being in the order of 8 to 10 tonnes per hectare.


“The science behind prescribed burning is sound but it is the repetitive, frequent application of  prescribed burning to any one area during the cooler months of the year, that leads to the continual (and polarised) debate over the use of prescribed burning.  All too often the weather conditions and the planned outcomes of the burning are not determined and stated even in part, prior to a burn and hence burning programs are generally implemented on so called ‘experience’.   Unfortunately this ‘experience’ has all to often, resulted in excessive crown scorch of trees due to fire intensities well in excess of those appropriate to prescribed burning (500 to 2500 kilowatts per metre);  damage to habitats and excessive removal of ground cover resulting in soil instability and even fire escapes that have become wildfires themselves. A high percentage (15 – 20%) each year of all bushfires in the south eastern States are a result of poorly planned and implemented prescribed burns and other ‘planned burns’.


“As a result of the all-to-often failure to define the weather conditions required to achieve acceptable prescribed fire intensities, not only does crown scorch of the overstorey trees occur but excessive amounts of fuel are removed with exposure of the soils to erosion from any subsequent storm events that may follow the burning. This issue is particularly important in the mountain water catchments of the Brindabella Ranges (Canberra water supply); the natural areas including national parks and other protected areas around Melbourne, (Melbourne water supply) and the Alps catchments of the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Snowy Rivers (Alps National Parks).


“Almost all prescribed burning programs are stated in planning documents to be for ‘fuel reduction purposes to provide protection for life and property’.  This in itself is incorrect as fuel reduction does not provide ‘protection for life and property’ but if correctly and effectively implemented does reduce the ground litter loads from a high level to a lower level and in so doing reduces the fire intensity of a bushfire that  may subsequently burn through an area during the summer months. The reduced fuel loads contribute to lower wildfire intensities which in turn, provide a greater opportunity for fire fighting personnel to suppress a subsequent bushfire but as history shows and as has been recorded – prescribed burning does not stop a very high to extreme intensity bushfire, as experienced in the disastrous 2003 bushfires that burnt across large tracts of mountainous country in Victoria, NSW, and the ACT and the 2009 wildfires in Victoria.


“Protection of life and property from the impacts of all wildfires (high intensity fires) therefore cannot be guaranteed through the implementation of prescribed burning, and to assert that it does would be grossly negligent by anyone who states that this can be achieved.  The immediate post-fire call by many from the public including several researchers and academics, to do more prescribe burning, is therefore ill-considered, and inappropriate.  If such was to be considered, the extent (area and locations) of past and recent prescribed burns would need to be quantified such that the appropriateness and possible benefits of any additional prescribed burning could be ascertained.  The question to those calling for more burning is: more than what, more where, more when and how to achieve it?” 27/9/2009


Landscape Mosaic Burns: What are they?

A series of ‘strategic conversations’ was held by DSE at Big Hill in August to present to the community the idea of ‘landscape mosaic burns’. Community representatives’ responses to the idea have ranged from concerns centred mainly around safety to those about environmental health. Somewhere in the middle have been such people as beekeepers, who have looked for reassurance that burns over a large area do not affect honey production. 

What are landscape mosaic burns? 

First, the idea is vague. In particular, a ‘landscape’, on current working definitions, might be five thousand hectares—or it might be as little as a thousand ha. Even this smaller area is big, however, compared to what we have been used to in this region: this year’s Wewak track burn, for example, was relatively large for this area, and it was only 241 ha.  

A 5000 ha burn would cover most of the Diggings Park (which is only 7000 ha), and is clearly out of the question. DSE officers at Big Hill acknowledged this. Even a 1000 ha burn, however would present serious problems in managing the different environments which would be covered in such an area. 

Second, these burns are not an entirely new idea. In the current DSE Fire Protection Plan, a Zone 3 management burn is described as a ‘broad area reduced fuel mosaic.’ In this zone the burn is uneven, and 35% of the named area is not burned at all. A management burn of the new type will also burn only a proportion of the area in question: somewhere between 30% and 80% has been mentioned. This is much more flexible than the 65% which is presently aimed at in Zone 3 burns, but the upper figure is one which gives some cause for concern, for reasons explained below.  

Third, Landscape Mosaic Burns will ‘usually take several years to complete.’ We are obviously dealing with a very complicated exercise here, which could not be completed in the limited time available each year for management burns. The number of days each year when the bush is dry enough for a burn to be possible and not so dry that it could be dangerous is strictly limited. If the Landscape burns take place over a number of years, it’s not really clear how they differ from the current Zone 3 burns. 

Fourth, the intervals between such burns in the same area will vary, depending on the monitored fuel loads and vegetation recovery: burn intervals could be as short as ten or as long as fifty years—the same as for Zone 3.   

And lastly, the Landscape burns are separate from current Fire Operations Plans, and superimposed upon them. This makes the situation even more confusing.  


The stated intentions of such a burning practice are both ecological enhancement and reduction of severe wildfire risk. It is at this stage hard not to be cynical about this dual objective: the first objective looks like it’s there to soften the second, especially in the light of pressure to drastically increase targets for management burns. Putting aside this cynicism for the moment, we are still entitled to ask, in what way is this new system better than the zoning which has been used by DSE for years? How is a ‘landscape mosaic burn’ better than a ‘broad area reduced fuel mosaic’?  

In any case, the ecological objective is the one in which we have a particular interest. A literature review produced by the Arthur Rylah institute, and produced in our newsletter in 2006, recommends an extremely cautious approach to the use of fire for ecological management, in the light of our limited knowledge of box ironbark ecosystems. Burning over a very wide area is extremely ambitious, if one considers the range of ecosystems and sensitivities to fire in, for example, the Castlemaine Diggings NHP.  

In order to approach this dimension of the task, fire operatives have sought advice from Deakin University. We will look with great interest at whatever advice the University offers. In addition, DSE monitors its own burns, and among other things uses ‘indicator species’ as a guide to recovery from fire.  

FOBIF’s concerns around management burns have mainly centred on the vagueness of this research basis. So far as we know, the research is not available to the public, which makes it hard to know how credible or useful it is. What is at stake is not just aesthetics: it is important to manage the bush so as to maximise its health at a time of great climatic stress. If burning too frequently contributes to declines in forest health, we will have been in the position of having ‘destroyed it in order to save it.’

Moreover, even the first objective, reducing fire risk, may not be achieved in this system. As Phil Ingamells points out in the article printed below, ‘well-intentioned prescribed burns can actually turn some relatively fire-resistant forest types into drier, shrubby forests, making them more fire- prone.’

We look forward to a discussion of this whole matter in the second half of the Royal Commission’s deliberations in the coming months. In the mean time, DSE has floated the idea of a landscape burn in the Heathcote Graytown area. For more information, go to$File/LMB+discussion+paper_2009.pdf

 for a DSE discussion paper on the subject.

Taking revenge on the bush?
The following article by VNPA spokesperson Phil Ingamells appeared in the Weekly Times on August 26 2009:

The fires of Black Saturday were truly terrible, but it may be time to take a deep breath before we take revenge on the bush.

We could lose more than we gain if we surrender to knee-jerk targets for fuel-reduction burning across Victoria.

Management burns have the capacity to significantly reduce fuel loads.

They are a critical part of bushfire management, and contrary to some claims, the conservation movement has supported strategic fuel reduction across the state for many years now, including within National Parks.

But management burns are just one tool in the fire prevention armory, and like most tools they have their limits.

Wrongly applied, they can be quite harmful.

Max Rheese and the Victorian Lands Alliance is calling for a tripling of current burn targets to the 385,000ha recommended by last year's parliamentary inquiry.

But that figure was not based on any credible scientific evidence, and certainly not on the limited research the report actually referred to.

Indeed, the current target of 130,000ha per year, so far as we know, is also not derived from any clear scientific analysis.

And oddly, this broad hectare target is meant to be achieved regardless of the extent of wildfire.

Whether there is no bushfire in a given year, or whether we get another Black Saturday across half the state, we are still meant to achieve a figure of 130,000ha of additional burn.

It's a bit like deciding to pump 100,000 litres of water into a dam each year, regardless of how full the dam is.

Even one of the strongest protagonists for larger fuel reduction targets, Peter Attiwill, makes it clear in his textbook, Ecology, used by students throughout Australia, that we must take wildfire into account when planning control burns.

He says "a prescribed fire regime to manage the accumulated fuel loads and to manage biodiversity demands knowledge both of fire behaviour and of the life histories of plants and animals".

And this is the most difficult part of the problem.

The bush isn't just fuel, it's where our 600 million-year-old evolutionary heritage of something like 100,000 native species hangs out.

If we are not careful, we could lose it.

The Victorian community may choose to decide that we have no other options for fire safety, and that it is worth sacrificing our heritage.

But if we are to make that decision, it should be a well-considered one - weighing up all our knowledge, and looking at all of our management and planning options.

It's a difficult call though. Ecologists are telling us that frequently repeated fire is likely to have more impact on biodiversity than the occasional fierce fire, but we need a lot more information.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment has established "tolerable fire intervals" for different vegetation types.

However, that only accounts for a relatively small number of plants, for which we have a fair knowledge of recovery periods.

We don't yet take into account the recovery capacity of our many birds and animals, let alone the tens of thousands of different insects and other remarkable native species that hold our ecosystems together.

And well-intentioned prescribed burns can actually turn some relatively fire-resistant forest types into drier, shrubby forests, making them more fire- prone.

We are at risk of setting up a very extensive and quite dicey experiment in ecosystem management in Victoria, without sufficient scientific basis and little or no monitoring.

This is something we would never tolerate in our hospitals, nor would we tolerate it from our engineers or bridge-builders.

With climate change clearly upon us, and more frequent fires predicted, land managers in 30 years' time will be desperate for data from long-term scientific monitoring.

Whatever fire regimes we may decide on, we must also set up comprehensive monitoring programs now.

Then, hopefully, we might be able to make informed judgments on the effectiveness of different fuel reduction programs.

Also, we might then understand what we need to do to protect our natural heritage.

Too Much Digging in the Diggings Park

On June 19 FOBIF representatives met with David Major, Ranger in Charge of the Castlemaine Diggings NHP, and did a short tour with him of recent works in the Park.

We wanted to express our concern over the way track ‘upgrades’ had taken place in the Stephens Track and Poverty Gully areas. In addition we were shocked at the bulldozer gouging of a dam at the old Caledonian mine site on Stephens track, the extension of Stephens St, Campbell’s Creek. The dam has been significantly and pointlessly enlarged, and huge amounts of rock and clay dumped onto vegetation in the process.

This is not the first time we have had problems with ‘upgrades’ of one sort or another in the Park. In 2004 we protested against roadworks in the same area which in our view were excessive and crudely executed.

In both cases we have made clear that we are not opposed to reasonable access tracks, especially where fire control is the rationale behind the works. Our problem is that workers, if not properly supervised, seem inclined to take out large swathes of the bush additional to what is needed for the works in question. Bulldozer turning circles are a particular problem.

We believe that the bush in the area is fragile, and needs all the help it can get. It does not need to be brutally bashed in the name of efficiency.

In particular, we are concerned that one of the Park’s own guidelines is clearly not being observed. This reads: ‘All roadworks (within parks and reserves) must be supervised by Parks Victoria staff.’ 

This clearly did not happen with the private contractor involved in the recent works.

As a consequence we have the ridiculous situation that work supposedly done to protect the bush and people has environmentally degrading results: erosion, increased traffic short cutting through the bush, and intrusion on sensitive areas, like the red spider orchid areas affected in 2004. 

David Major acknowledged that there were problems in the implementation of the recent works, in particular with the dam site. He undertook to have this repaired, though it is hard to see how the damage can be undone.

If there is a moral in this incident, it is that it’s important to keep an eye on what is being done in the park. Careless or sloppy work can only be controlled if local people show that they care how things are done. Another depressing lesson is that you have to keep at it: we thought after discussions with the Park in 2004 that we would not have this problem again.

FOBIF AGM: Fire Management
A well attended AGM heard VNPA organiser Phil Ingamells talk about issues to do with fire management. Phil pointed out that the VNPA, like other conservation organisations, has consistently supported the use of fire as a management tool on public land. He emphasised, however, that we are profoundly ignorant of the effects of fire on the environment. The solution is a long term commitment to careful monitoring and research, and sensitivity to the possible negative effects of control burns, one of which is the occasional encouragement of flammable woody weeds. [May 2009]

New FOBIF Committee
The AGM elected a new FOBIF committee, as follows:
President: Marie Jones
Vice President: Frank Panter
Secretary: Bernard Slattery
Treasurer: Bronwyn Silver
Committee: Tami McVicar, Kylie McIndoe, Heather Brown, Doug Ralph

The AGM was a significant event in that it marked the retirement of our foundation President, Doug Ralph, and Treasurer, Tami McVicar, after ten years of invaluable work. Fortunately both have agreed to continue on the committee. [May 2009]

Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission

FOBIF has written to the Royal Commission on the consideration of bushfire risk in the planning of new housing estates in forested areas. Our concern is that the inappropriate planning of hew housing endangers residents and has environmental consequences. The submission can be viewed in the documents section of this site.

Council’s Planning Department has asked Council to approve a process of community consultation on rules (“Planning Controls”) for new housing being built near bushland.

During the next 1-2 months the Department plans to have sessions where residents can tell Council representatives their views. FOBIF doesn’t know whether the form of consultation will be guided by the individual residents, or if a questionnaire will be used.


These sessions come towards the end of the Council’s Urban Forest Interface Study (UFIS), a series of meetings between representatives of Council, DSE, CFA, FOBIF, Castlemaine Action and landowners. Council set up the study in response to a recommendation from the C24 Planning Panel in 2005.

The Panel endorsed the concerns expressed by FOBIF about how rezoning land near bush for housing might affect flora and fauna on the one hand, and the risk to residents from wildfire on the other. As a result the Shire’s Planning Scheme (i.e. the State Government-approved planning rules) says Council must do an Urban Forest Interface Study before it can rezone land near Castlemaine bush for housing.


The effects of more housing near bush include:
1. risk to more residents from bushfires,
2. residents who have belatedly discovered this risk pressuring authorities to clear bush near to them,
3. spread of environment weeds through garden escapes and dumped garden waste,
4. more bush being “neatened” (i.e. destroyed) by residents,
5. more cats and dogs killing or harming wildlife,
6. more trail bike tracks destroying plants and increasing erosion.

The effects of more housing in bush include:
1. complete destruction of bush for houses, drives, sheds, gardens, etc.
2. partial destruction of bush surrounding houses to comply with CFA requirements,
3. effects 1 to 6 above.

Some of the land the Study is focusing on has bush on it. All of the land is near bush - some public, some private.

FOBIF has been asking for a Rural Conservation Zone in these areas to protect the flora and fauna. DSE has broadly supported this approach and if the Council believes there is community support, it will also probably support this position.

FOBIF has also been arguing for wider buffer areas between new housing and the bush. The fires of February 7th, especially in Bendigo, illustrate the need for this.

The CSIRO’s climate predictions (made in 2007) indicate Very Extreme and Catastrophic fire danger days may become more common. Very Extreme Fire Weather is where the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) is greater than 75 and would include the fire weather on Ash Wednesday, the Avoca to Maryborough fire and the February 2009 fires. Bendigo currently experiences Very Extreme Fire Weather days around once every 11 years but with a high level of global warming (1deg C rise by 2020), the CSIRO estimate these days may occur every 6-7 years by 2020.


One view put at UFIS meetings is that there shouldn’t be more control over how people use their land. If Council adopted this view, how could natural ecosystems be protected, and how could residents in new areas be protected from wildfire?

Another view put at the UFIS meetings is that this process (which may restrict developers) is the result of us having a National Heritage Park. But do people who love the bush only want to protect it if it is in a Park? And do people only care about minimizing the risk to residents from a bushfire in a Park?

What You Can Do

1. Watch the local papers or the Council website for details of the community consultation within the next two months.

2. If you haven’t heard anything and would like some information, ring the Council (5471 1700) and ask the Planning Dept. for details, or to be put on the mailing list.

3. Come to a consultation session and give your views on issues arising from rezoning land near bush for housing. The UFIS has been focusing on Castlemaine, and it’s important that Castlemaine’s residents, especially those living near bush, give their views. However Council is likely to eventually base its policy for other areas in the Shire on the results of this study in Castlemaine. So it’s also useful for residents from other areas to be heard. The Tarran Valley proposal at Maldon is an example of a housing estate where 22 hectare of bush (used by threatened species) would be completely or partially destroyed, and where residents would live with an unacceptable risk from fire.

State of Environment Report
The Victorian Commissioner for Environment and Sustainability released his State of the Environment report in December 2008. It makes sobering reading.

On inland waterways, the report says, ’The last assessment of river health in 2004 found that only one fifth of major rivers and tributaries in Victoria were in good or excellent condition. By 1994, more than a third of naturally occurring wetland area had been lost. Twenty-one fish species, 11 frog species and 29 species of water birds are currently considered threatened.’

‘Under climate change, streamflow is projected to decrease by up to 50% across much of Victoria by 2070. The present degraded state of many inland waters increases the challenge of mitigating the environmental impacts associated with climate

‘Lack of flooding threatens the existence of tens of thousands of hectares of River Red Gum Forests.’

The report can be found at

 Bendigo Forest Management Plan

This plan was released in November 2008, after a period of consultation. 

State forests account for 5.8% of  Victoria, and 32.2% of  public land (compared to 40.7% for conservation parks). Under this Plan, forests are divided into three zones: General Management (the vast majority of the forests), Special Management and Special Protection. These latter are small pockets in which exploitative activities are relatively restricted.

The Plan expresses a kind of ‘wise use’ vision of forest use, with many very praiseworthy objectives around habitat conservation, particularly related to the retention of old trees. The devil, as with many of these documents, is in the implementation. For example, the chapter on fire supports ‘adaptive management research’, and cites DSE’s Guidelines and Procedures for Ecological Burning (2003) as its guide. FOBIF has substantial anecdotal evidence that this document is regarded with some cynicism by those responsible for management burns. We suspect that fuel reduction is the all consuming aim of these burns, and that the ecology comes further down the list of concerns.

In any case, there is a wider question of the role of management plans, both in state forests and National Parks. How seriously are they taken by staff forced by budget restrictions to choose between important options, necessarily sacrificing some for others?

From our point of view, it is reasonably important, in any case, that the public be aware of these plans: constructive public scrutiny is an important force in good public land management.

The Plan is definitely worth a look, and if you can get a copy, we recommend you do so. It’s available from DSE, and on the net in PDF format at

Input to the Bendigo FMP

A summary of submissions to the consultation process is available with the plan itself, and they are as interesting as the final document: they provide a clear insight into the range of community attitudes which DSE had to bear in mind in creating the final Plan.

For interest, we quote two submission summaries here:

Item 148: ‘Those agitating for all forests to be declared Parks or Reserves would best be advised to devote their attention to responsible stewardship of the existing Parks and Reserves. An independent audit reviewing management, preservation and health of all represented species and their impact on neighbours and the immediate and wider community is well overdue.’ 

Item 149: ‘Consolidate the Upper Loddon Catchment Forest and Mt Franklin Reserve and the Castlemaine Diggings NHP into a national park that would capture the imagination of Victoria. Provides a petition of 320 signatures stating ‘A petition that the Upper Loddon Catchment forests be declared a national park and world biosphere reserve.’

Both of these submissions were received noncommittally by the Plan writers. Maybe both have some merit.

FOBIF and the Bendigo FMP

FOBIF made a submission to the consultation process in 2007. It can be viewed here.

We made suggestions under four headings.

First, we suggested the enlargement of a Special Management Zone in the Fryers Ranges to protect old trees. This was accepted. We also urged that DSE be more proactive in explaining its approach to conservation matters. This was greeted by a vague generalization about community engagement. It is a source of frustration to us that DSE and Parks Victoria are both subjected to a range of attacks—some of them from us, others much less well informed—and their usual response is to lie low or to respond in bureaucratese. We can probably expect this to continue.

Second, we urged a much more rigorous approach to researching the effects of management burns, and specific requirement that all operatives involved in these burns ‘take account of the results of monitoring of previous burns in the relevant area.’ This also was responded to with generalities.

Third, we requested greater protection in the Muckleford Forest for threatened species. This was rejected on the grounds that the species in question are already protected in the Muckleford Flora reserve.

And fourth, we suggested greater protection for three heritage sites in the Fryers Forest. These suggestions were accepted. 

Draft Northern Victoria Water Strategy

The State Government’s draft Sustainable Water Strategy for the Northern Region has proposed a number of actions including new regulation of farm dams to meet the problems of declining inflows over the next 50 years.

The report highlights that a continuation of conditions experienced over the past 12 years would mean a 70 per cent reduction in Loddon and Campaspe inflows and a 48 per cent reduction for the Goulburn.

The problem is made clear in a table on page 40 which compares the long term average inflows into Victoria’s share of the Murray system with the inflows since 1997. Average inflows from 1891 to 1996 were 7,478 gigalitres per year. Inflows since 1997 have averaged 4,184 gigalitres per year—a drop of 44%.

The Draft also highlights the proliferation of farm and peri urban amenity dams and the effect on storage inflows.

A study of one Eppalock catchment in the report shows that 31 per cent of inflows were captured in farm dams.

Of these inflows, 90 per cent accounting for 1435ML were in unlicensed dams.

Page 164 of the Draft has two startling aerial photos of the Mt Ida sub catchment. One, taken in 1982, shows the area as a rural setting. It is possible to make out about a dozen dams. The second, taken in 2008 shows the area as a peri urban setting. The number of dams has more than doubled. There are serious questions here about who has rights to water, and what for. It is particularly interesting that the National Party local member, Damien Drum, has expressed concern about dam construction. It is a far cry from National Party views in the past, which held that private landowners had unchallengable rights to harvest water from their land.

The draft was developed with regional water authorities, catchment management authorities, local government, industry groups, the Victorian Farmers Federation, Environment Victoria and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

It may be found at the Mount Alexander Shire offices, or in PDF format at



Draft Northern Victoria Water Strategy

The State Government’s draft Sustainable Water Strategy for the Northern Region [2008] has proposed a number of actions including new regulation of farm dams to meet the problems of declining inflows over the next 50 years.

The report highlights that a continuation of conditions experienced over the past 12 years would mean a 70 per cent reduction in Loddon and Campaspe inflows and a 48 per cent reduction for the Goulburn.

The problem is made clear in a table on page 40 which compares the long term average inflows into Victoria’s share of the Murray system with the inflows since 1997. Average inflows from 1891 to 1996 were 7,478 gigalitres per year. Inflows since 1997 have averaged 4,184 gigalitres per year—a drop of 44%.

The Draft also highlights the proliferation of farm and peri urban amenity dams and the effect on storage inflows.

A study of one Eppalock catchment in the report shows that 31 per cent of inflows were captured in farm dams.

Of these inflows, 90 per cent accounting for 1435ML were in unlicensed dams.

Page 164 of the Draft has two startling aerial photos of the Mt Ida sub catchment. One, taken in 1982, shows the area as a rural setting. It is possible to make out about a dozen dams. The second, taken in 2008 shows the area as a peri urban setting. The number of dams has more than doubled. There are serious questions here about who has rights to water, and what for. It is particularly interesting that the National Party local member, Damien Drum, has expressed concern about dam construction. It is a far cry from National Party views in the past, which held that private landowners had unchallengable rights to harvest water from their land.

The draft was developed with regional water authorities, catchment management authorities, local government, industry groups, the Victorian Farmers Federation, Environment Victoria and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

It may be found at the Mount Alexander Shire offices, or in PDF format at