Representatives from the CFA, local government, The Wilderness Society, Bendigo Field Naturalists Club, Friends of Kalimna Park, North Central Victoria Combined Environment Groups [NCVCEG], Apiarists Association and DSE attended a workshop on June 10 to learn about the process for implementing the findings of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Though FOBIF was not invited to this workshop, we were represented by members of some of the other groups. The following account of the workshop is taken from the notes of Richard Goonan [NCVEG]:
The Commission’s various recommendations are being implemented by different groups. This workshop focused in particular on recommendation 59 which includes:
– Provide a clear statement of objectives, expressed as measurable outcomes.
– Include an explicit risk-analysis model for objective and transparent resolution of competing objectives, where human life is the highest priority.
– Specify the characteristics of fire management zones-including burn size, percentage area burnt within the prescribed burn, as residual fuel loading.
– adopt the use of the term bushfire rather than wildfire.
As a result of implementing the recommendations, DSE’s Code of Practice for Fire Management on Public Land (COP) will be reviewed and updated.
This process has started with a series of scoping workshops held across the state. A draft code for public comment is expected to be released about October. It was indicated during general discussion of the COP review that DSE may lift the COP to a higher level document, reduce duplication/complexity, and provide some detailed elements in auxiliary documents at the regional level.
The COP document is signed off by the responsible minister, is tabled in Parliament for discussion and is considered to be an important document, and therefore compliance with the code is mandatory.
DSE representatives signalled clearly that fire management in Victoria will change rapidly over the next five years. While the code of practice is a generally more stable document, the need to incorporate rapid change means that some of the detailed elements may be better placed in subsidiary documents such as regional prescriptions.
NCVCEG expressed the view that the code of practice is a strong working document and that any reduction in detail should not reduce the value of the document for the community to assess the standard of DSE fire management: i.e. the code needs to remain specific and prescriptive so that clear boundaries are set, to which DSE fire mangers can be held accountable.
Discussions on the day looked at:
1) Objectives of the code
The audience provided some broad objectives the code should seek to provide. These included:
– Clear role for incorporation of science in planning and implementation (monitoring and reporting are covered in another but related recommendation) with deficiencies addressed urgently.
-Clear and transparent community consultation process.
– Minimum standards across the state, raise these where needed e.g. planning, compliance auditing.
-Clear review and compliance auditing process for public accountability
2) How to measure the objectives?
The audience was asked to describe how the broad objectives could be measured. The difficulty of this question seems to have been slightly underestimated by the workshop organisers. Time allowed only brief consideration of two broad objectives.
–It was suggested that the incorporation of science in planning and implementation could be measured by noting the amount of new science in the process: this would show that past deficiencies in knowledge are being addressed.
–It was suggested that the degree of flexibility in planning and implementation is a measure of effective and respectful community engagement, e.g. addressing biodiversity issues, apiarist’s needs.
3) Risk model and how to balance competing values
On the subject of Risk Management, NCVCEG highlighted the need for DSE to focus on addressing ‘Hazards not Hectares’. Importantly much of the discussion here focused on how important alternative approaches to reducing risk (rather than relying on prescribed burning) can provide positive outcomes for fire management and biodiversity.
Integrated land management has been a major failure in practice. It was highlighted that integration of fire management across tenures in critical to the establishment of a valid risk model. The example of the Moonlight Flat pine plantation was used to clearly highlight that a narrow focus on public land without adequately considering risks on private land is not an acceptable approach anymore.
It was also pointed out that there are many well established risk analysis procedures within the literature. Given this, it seems odd that DSE were scoping for ideas, when perhaps they should have been providing examples to discuss and scoping the validity of various models.
Most importantly any risk model needs to be explicit and peer reviewed so there is the possibility that it will be balanced and transparent.
4) Fire management zones/prescriptions
Fire Management Zones (FMZ) have been reviewed recently. An interim zoning is to be released soon. With little time left the group briefly discussed the merits of fire management zones, and how they might relate to the risk model. It was highlighted that the residual fuel load is an important aspect, but further detail as to how was not provided.
NCVCEG made the point that the current diagram used by DSE to represent the relationship between ecological outcomes and fire management outcomes across the four FMZ is misleading, encourages poor planning, discourages biodiversity management in zones 1 and 2, and neglects to recognise that fire management outcomes may be achieved in all zones, especially where integrated planning and alternative practices (to prescribed burning) are established.
In relation to FMZ the Apiarists pointed out that Box Ironbark forests generally have very low fuel levels in comparison to heavily forested regions where many lives were lost during the fires in 2009. The merit of burning areas used for honey production was questioned and the long term impacts of severe burning on Box Ironbark forest ecology was raised.
The discussion information sheet ‘Review of the Code of Practice for Fire Management on Public Land’ was provided at the workshop and clearly briefs the FOP review. Perhaps this should have been provided prior to the meeting? Unfortunately the workshop deviated from the information sheet and as a result some important questions listed on the information sheet were not addressed, e.g. What level of risk can we live with?
A concerning aspect of the morning’s discussions was the lack of knowledge about the Code of Practice. The participants were invited to attend, but few had ever seen the COP. It’s not certain why it wasn’t made clear in the process somewhere that detailed consideration of recommendation 59 was to be discussed in relation to the Code of Practice. As a result, much of the discussion covered things that were already in the COP, and suggestions were made as if the ideas were new or would be improvements. Numerous times, aspects already covered in the COP were repeated.
Importantly it should be remembered that implementation and compliance with the code determines the outcomes on the ground. If the COP is not adequately implemented, poor practices can prevail.
It will be crucial that DSE or the government do not water down the Code of Practice in any way that reduces accountability. Therefore it will be important for community groups to pursue close scrutiny of the proposed changes and ensure rigorous standards of practice are maintained.
FOBIF editor’s note: the Fact sheet outlining changes to the fire management zones is not yet available on DSE’s website. The Code of Practice can be found here.