How good is the new Code of Practice?

DSE’s new Code of Practice for Fire Management on Public Land has been out for consultation for some time now. The document can be found here. As we signalled in a previous post, we have had preliminary misgivings about the new draft.

Our misgivings relate to compliance matters [how can we be sure workers on the ground are going to observe the Code?], and about weakening of requirements for ecological management in Zone 2 burns. It is also unfortunate that the sensible requirement that priority be given to protection of human life has, it seems, been seen as a licence to sacrifice ecological values–which are also, in the long term, crucial to human life.

Our final submission on the Draft document is given below. The headings are the ones supplied by DSE as a template for all submissions:

1. Does the Draft Code provide an effective framework to achieve its purpose? [This purpose is set out in paragraph 3 page 1 of the Draft]

The question should be, Does the Code provide a sufficiently effective framework? Although there are good features in the draft, the framework throughout, especially in its fuel management chapter, assumes that we will act now [to ‘reduce fuel’] and find out later whether what we are doing is effective or counterproductive. It is significant that there is nowhere  in the document any reference to what DSE has found out about its fuel reduction programs over the last forty or so years. This is probably because the research required by the 2006 Code has never been done, that the long proclaimed policy of

‘adaptive management’  has never been practiced, and that fire operatives are simply repeating past practices.

2. Are the over-arching objectives in paragraph 4 appropriate for fire management on public land? [These objectives are to reduce the impact of bushfire on human communities, and to enhance the resilience of natural ecosystems]

The objectives are fine as far as they go. Throughout, however, the Code interprets the requirement to ‘conclusively prioritise the primacy of human life over other values’ in an extremely short term way: that is, short term safety is used as a reason to devalue natural ecosystems, on which in the long term human life depends. Hence, the Code is mostly adequate on Prevention, Preparedness and Response, but crude and simplistic on Fuel management. The assumption throughout is that reduction burns are like vacuum cleaners going through the bush cleaning up fuel. Our view is that these burns sometimes increase fuel loads and create a drier, more flammable environment less capable of delivering ‘ecosystem services’. The second objective, ‘to enhance the resilience of our natural ecosystems…’ is a poor second fiddle to the first. Nowhere does the Code indicate in what way the practices it recommends will enhance natural ecosystems. Only vague references to monitoring suggest that there is any concern for such a thing. The 2006 Code was much more explicit on this matter in its Section 2.2.2: the requirements in this section should be restored to the 2011 Code. It is hard to see how this would reduce the clarity of the document.

This point can be seen most clearly on page18 of the draft: the Outcomes box makes no reference to ‘improved resilience of ecosystems’, although this phrase occurs in the strategies box on the next page.

It seems that the risk management model adopted by the Code is too crude, and implicitly accepts that the trade offs of management actions will always involve sacrifice of environmental values. In fact, with proper management resourcing, it should at least be imaginable that fuel reduction/human safety and improved environmental values can be combined: for example, by the use of reduction burning to eliminate flammable weeds. For example, the recent [November 2011] Quartz Hill APZ burn near Chewton [CAS 0105] flattened native undergrowth, but left large stands of gorse and blackberry virtually untouched. A concerted effort to focus on environmental weeds in reduction burns could be extremely beneficial all round: but it would require some explicit direction in the Code. We believe that the Bracewell St fire in Bendigo in 2010 burned through weedy wastelands which might have benefited from such a treatment.

3. Are the actions and strategies measurable?

No. The compliance provisions of the Code need to be clarified and strengthened.

a. We note that there is no provision of compliance conditions in this draft, in contrast to the 2006 Code, which required independent audits of compliance. The requirement for compliance has been replaced by a requirement to report ‘regularly’, ‘frequently’ or ‘periodically’, depending on the nature of the activity [para 208]. Although we believe that the 2006 Code was widely ignored—and in fact held in contempt by some DSE fire operatives—we urge the inclusion of a compliance requirement along the lines of section 6 of the 2006 Code.

b. Paragraph 214 requires that ‘actions [will be] modified to minimise impacts on the environment’ should scientific evidence show that ‘environmental risk thresholds’ have been reached.

The 2006 Code also required that fire be used with due regard for its environmental effects [Section 1.10.5], and required that ‘The Department must ensure that information recorded [in monitoring] is used to inform future fire operations.’ [para 236, page 21] This, however, was widely ignored.

To reduce the likelihood that this Code will suffer the fate of the last one, we urge that Paragraph 125, on Burn Plans, have the following added, as the first dot point:

  • A clear and succinct account of the previous fire history of the area to be burnt, including lessons learned from the previous burn, and mistakes to be avoided.

Further, the last suggested indicator box on page 19 should read: ‘The percentage of public land in good health in 2016 and 2021 compared to that in 2011, with a clear indicator of the role of fire in any changed condition for the better or worse.’

c. The paragraphs numbered 208 are vague and even obscure. They should contain specific questions to be answered. For example, we suggest the addition of the following to para 206: ‘Has the action actually reduced fuel loads and bushfire danger? Has it impacted positively or negatively on ecosystem services?’ We ask for this addition because we believe that after a significant number of burns in our region the fuel load actually increases, owing to the prolific regeneration of fire loving species [a case study can be found in our consideration of the 2010 Wewak track burn—see attached].

4. Does the risk analysis framework in the draft code conclusively prioritise the primacy of human life…?

In the short term, yes. In the medium to long term, no. We freely acknowledge the short term effectiveness of some fuel reduction burns. Some, however, look to us to be both environmentally damaging and conducive to hotter bushfires.

5. The draft Code requires that burn size, percentage treatment and residual fuel loading  will be specified in individual burn plans. What is the most convenient way for you to access Fire Operations Plans and supporting information on individual burns?

At the moment, the burn plans are hard to access. There should be easily available hard copies available from DSE/Parks offices and from Municipal offices.

Similarly, the Fire Protection Plans and the Code of Practice are mainly available online, and are hard to read in this form. Printed versions should be more widely available, even at a small price.

6. Additional comments

a. In the box ironbark area we believe that the Ecological Management Zone is contentious. It has been established by Tolsma et al [DSE 2007] that these bushlands do not need fire to regenerate. Under currently prevailing warm conditions, it is possible that any burning will have a negative effect on biodiversity. This might be justified as the price of human safety, but we cannot be confident that it ‘increase[s] the resilience of our natural systems’ [para 117]. In view of this, burning for ecological purposes should be independently monitored and researched.

Further, the section on fire ecology strategy should have the following added, at paragraph 122: ‘This Strategy will clearly show the different fire regimes tolerated by different forest types in Victoria.’

b. We note that the specification for the Strategic Bushfire Moderation Zone [para 140] contains no reference to respect for ecological values, unlike the 2006 Code, which specified under para 164: ‘Wherever possible, while delivering asset protection objectives, the Strategic Wildfire Moderation Zone will aim to maximise ecological outcomes by seeking to manage for ecologically desirable fire regimes, provided fire protection objectives can still be met.’ This is a serious weakening of the Code as a guide to ecological management, which effectively turns the SBMZ into an asset protection zone. The 2006 Code’s paragraph 164 should be restored in the new code at paragraph 140.

ATTACHMENT: the FOBIF submission was accompanied by text and photos relating to the Wewak Track burn, one example of a case where we believe a management burn has increased fuel load. This material can be found here.

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