Fire management: so what’s new?

DSE is in the process of reviewing its Code of Practice for fire management on public land. The review is being done in the light of the Bushfire Royal Commission’s recommendation 59. This recommendation required that the Code  ‘provide a clear statement of objectives’ in fire management, an explicit risk analysis model ‘for more objective and transparent resolution of competing objectives, where human life is the highest priority’, and the specific characteristics of fire management zones, including ‘burn size, percentage area burnt within the prescribed burn, and residual fuel loading.’

A draft Code has been produced, and is open for consultation. It can be found here

Members are strongly recommended to look it over and to make a response, which can easily be done by email to Responses are due by December 9. Be prepared to grit your teeth, however: there’s rather too much bureaucratic language in it for our taste. An example: Strategy 91 is ‘implement interoperability improvements and partnership arrangements.’

FOBIF representatives went to a briefing on the draft Code in Bendigo on November 4. We will be  making a detailed submission on it in due course. In the mean time it is worth recording three points: the fact that the Code tends to be a nice document no one observes; the inability of the Code’s procedures to prevent sloppy or out of control burns; and the fact that the government’s five per cent burn target contradicts one of the Code’s important rules. To elaborate:

1. We put the following question to the code’s authors in at the workshop: ‘The draft code, like its predecessors, advocates an adaptive management approach governed by detailed scientific research. This has been policy for years, but has never been followed, and in fact we were informed earlier this year that DSE has still not processed monitoring information gathered in 2003. What guarantee can you offer that this latest code will be followed more than its predecessor?’

The answer, as might be predicted, was to suggest that the Code is the responsibility of the government of the day, and it’s up to them to provide resources to implement the code.

2. Beekeepers present at the briefing were clearly angry at the sloppiness of many management burns which had been allowed to get too hot and destroy or seriously damage valuable trees [as well as increasing fuel loads by promoting rampant flammable regrowth]. They were also concerned that the five percent target is inappropriate for box ironbark forest, and could cause serious and possibly irreversible damage to our bush. These concerns mirror ones we have expressed many times: first, that the five percent target is inflexible; second, that regardless of your policy, the way it is implemented is of tremendous importance: management burns are tremendously complicated operations, and faulty or inadequate supervision can be disastrous. We have documented a few of these disasters over the years.

3. Paragraph 214 of the draft reads: ‘Based on science and the best available knowledge, the Department will identify environmental risk thresholds, at which point additional assessment of the risks posed by the fire management strategies/actions will be investigated and actions modified to minimise impacts on the environment.’ There are two problems with this very nice sentence. The first is that DSE has been burning for decades, and should already be in a position to modify its management practices. It shows no sign of doing so. Second: the recommendation is already pointless, because regardless of environmental damage, DSE is obliged to burn five percent of public land.

FOBIF’s detailed submission on the Code will be posted on this site in due course.

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