DSE’s 2012 Code of Practice for Bushfire Management on Public Land is now out. It can be found here. Readers will remember our discussion of the draft of this document last year. This version is significantly changed from that draft.
For a start, the name is different: the change from Code of Practice for Fire Management to Code of Practice for Bushfire Management may indicate a shift in emphasis: the focus now seems less on seeing how fire works in the environment, and how its beneficial effects can be maximised and its destructive effects limited. Now the focus seems to be primarily on bushfire prevention and moderation. This may simply clarify what has been the case in practice, or it may indicate that there has been a definite shift away from environmental concerns towards straight out safety matters. We’ll have to wait and see on that: on the one hand, sections in the draft Code requiring DSE to develop a fire ecology strategy, and support research, have been removed; on the other, the Code still commits the Department to act on the basis of scientific research, along the lines recommended by the Royal Commission. How this research is to be conducted and applied is, as always, an interesting question.
The Code repeats the dual aims of its predecessors:
‘There are two primary objectives for bushfire management on public land:
‘• To minimise the impact of major bushfires on human life, communities, essential and community infrastructure, industries, the economy and the environment. Human life will be afforded priority over all other considerations.
‘• To maintain or improve the resilience of natural ecosystems and their ability to deliver services such as biodiversity, water, carbon storage and forest products.’ [p. 1]
The second aim is expanded as follows on page 5:
‘Fire will be used deliberately in the landscape to meet legislative obligations and land management objectives, which promote ecological resilience and facilitate ecosystem services at a landscape level…Analysis of fire events is based on operational and scientific evidence, and experience and local knowledge. The intent will be integration of all forms of knowledge and information about fire history, with analysis at the local and landscape levels. Learning and knowledge will be used as part of an adaptive management approach to bushfire management.’
And on page 17 three major outcomes of the strategy are proposed: reduced impact of major bushfires, resilient natural ecosystems, and a better informed public about the role of bushfire in the Victorian landscape. [Here is one of the occasions where the replacement of ‘fire’ by ‘bushfire’ narrows the meaning of the document].
Further, on page 20, the Code states that
‘The Department will seek to protect soil by measures which minimise damage to its physical and chemical properties or which promote stabilisation of bare earth following disturbance…The Department will seek to protect water quantity and quality by measures that minimize the impact of bushfire management activities on the physical, chemical and biological qualities of streams and wetlands.’
This will be a bitter passage to read for those who have seen a few of the Department’s recent burns.
In some areas the Code is an improvement over the Draft. For example, in Zone 2, the Bushfire Management Zone, the ecological objective has been restored: ‘Where practicable, the BMZ will aim to achieve ecological outcomes by seeking to manage for ecologically desirable fire regimes, provided bushfire protection objectives can still be met. This may include using other fuel management methods.’ This last sentence poses the question: will these ‘other fuel management methods’ replace fire, or be in addition to it?
The biggest worry in the Code is the very significant change in the way Zone 3 is described. Its name is changed: it is not ‘Ecological Management Zone’, but ‘Landscape Management Zone.’ In the Draft, it was described as follows:
‘Within this zone, planned burning will be used for two broad aims:
• To achieve ecologically appropriate fire regimes for native species and/or ecological communities which have specific fire regime requirements.
• To manage the land for particular values including forest regeneration and protection of water catchments at a landscape scale.
‘Burning within this zone also assists with fire protection outcomes by reducing the overall fuel hazard in the landscape.’
The new Code offers us this:
‘Within this zone, planned burning will be used for three broad aims:
• bushfire protection outcomes by reducing the overall fuel and bushfire hazard in the landscape
• ecological resilience through appropriate fire regimes
• management of the land for particular values including forest regeneration and protection of water catchments at a landscape level.
‘Other fuel reduction methods will be used within this zone as appropriate.’
This is a definite promotion of ‘bushfire protection’ over environmental concerns, description of which is now quite vague. It remains to be seen if this changed emphasis will lead to a better or worse management of this zone. It’s arguable that it is in this zone that the most flagrant violations of the Code have happened in the past. The new, vaguer requirements for environmental management might make it harder to pin these violations down.
Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that the Code stipulates that all burns must be conducted in accordance with burn plans with ‘clearly stated land management and burn objectives with regard to percentage cover and residual fuel hazard and/or ecological outcomes as appropriate.’ It also stipulates that these aims be monitored and reported on. These burn plans have been pretty hard for the public to see in the past. Let’s hope we’ll get a better look in the future.
Readers will recall our discussion of the draft of this document.