Conservation groups [including FOBIF], apiarists and concerned individuals met with DSE representatives in Bendigo last Thursday to discuss the upcoming Fire Operations Program [FOP]. The meeting was organised by DSE and the North Central Victorian Combined Environment Groups.
DSE fire management officer Simon Brown outlined the process by which the FOP is developed, and he and other DSE officials fielded questions from the community members, who came from an area encompassing Echuca, Graytown, Taradale, Castlemaine, Muckleford and Bendigo.
All discussion was limited by the acknowledgement that the policy of burning five per cent of public bushland every year is non-negotiable at this level: the policy is determined not by DSE but by the State Government, and appears to have wide public support. Any changes in that policy will have to come via community debate and subsequent political change. [It’s hard if not impossible, however, to find anyone directly involved with the policy who likes it or feels that it’s doing any good in this region]. Discussions therefore concentrated on how the policy can be implemented with minimum environmental and economic damage while achieving public safety objectives.
Here are some of the points which emerged from the four hour session:
- DSE’s target this year is to burn 12,000 ha, and in following years 13, 668 ha per year. In addition 1,000 ha will be treated by slashing and other fuel reduction methods. These ‘alternative’ methods are not included in the five per cent target.
- Apiarists believe that the policy of burning Zone One areas every five years will destroy nectar production in those areas within 20 years. Beekeepers would like to see less intense burns, and DSE acknowledges that ‘we’d like to fuel reduce areas without intense burns.’ Efforts to achieve this have involved experimenting with night time burns, but it seems clear that pressure to achieve targets is going to compromise efforts to improve the quality of what is done.
- Environmentalists object to spring burns on the grounds that they affect seed setting and breeding patterns—but winemakers insist on them, because autumn burns cause smoke taint in grapes. DSE has to find a compromise between these opposing views.
- The burn target for next year has been reduced to 3.2% in the Murray Goldfields region. Targets have been raised for the rest of Victoria.
- DSE has no policy about the size of particular burn areas, but Simon Brown did observe that larger areas were ‘more economical.’ Most observers agree that the larger the burn area, the less control managers have over the fire, and the more damage will be done: and given the financial constraints on managers, the pressures to have large, crudely managed burn areas seem set to continue.
- In the Landscape Management Zone [Zone 3, formerly called Ecological Management Zone], the objective is to achieve a ‘burn cover’ of ‘at least 20% of the zone area’. Asked how it decided which 20% was to be burned, or how it limited the area to that 20% [or 30 or 40%], DSE was vague. [We estimate that the burn cover in some Zone 3 efforts has been over 70%]. However, Simon Brown did flag what seemed to observers to be a very practical method of controlling these burns more effectively by confining them to a corner of the zone area, rather than letting them run and hoping [sometimes very optimistically] for a mosaic effect.
- Questioned about the destruction of large trees in management burns, DSE answered that ‘we aim at no tree loss,’ but acknowledged that some loss is inevitable. There is no criterion for controlling the loss rate, and insufficient resources to reduce it.
- Large trees in burn sites are raked around the base to protect them. This is done only on the edge of the sites, and is not done primarily for biodiversity reasons: it is to avoid having trees fall over tracks, endangering workers.
- The question ‘Can you point to specific occasions where your monitoring and research has been used to modify and improve your practice?’ was answered, after some hesitation, with two examples: changed plans in areas where Eltham Copper Butterfly has been found, and reduced burn areas in the Mallee as a result of the research of Andrew Bennett of Deakin University. These answers are encouraging—and unsatisfactory: both examples given are exceptional, and it is clear that as a general rule biodiversity research plays little part in fire planning. This was made clear by a consideration of the outline of the FOP process given at the meeting. This happens as follows: sites are nominated for burning, and then the following government authorities are consulted for their advice on these sites: Biodiversity, Crown Land, Fire Ecology, Parks Victoria, Water Authorities, Heritage. The sites are then ‘ground truthed’ for fire history, topography, etc. In the case of the recent Tarilta burn, and the nearby Up and Down Track burn [and others], it is impossible to believe that these authorities would have authorised the exercises which followed. The impression gained, therefore, is that consultations at this stage are perfunctory. The meeting did offer some hope for improvement in this area: but a lot will depend on the willingness of community members to pay attention to the fire plans, and express a view about natural values they think might be affected by these plans.
- We were informed last year that pre and post burn monitoring data had not been collated since 2003. Asked about this, fire ecology officer Sharon Slater revealed that this data has now been included in a research report just released by the Arthur Rylah Institute. FOBIF has been unable to access this report, and it’s unclear what effect it may have on fire practice.
- Development of fire prevention and control practices across private and public land is still in the early stages [although integration of such practices has been policy for nearly ten years]. Nevertheless we may soon see areas of private land ‘treated’ to protect public forest.
- Feedback to DSE on the Fire Operations Plans is welcome—but it should be specific to the proposed burns, not philosophical about the use of fire in management, for example. You can find info about local plans here
In spite of a few outbreaks of dispute, participants in the meeting were concerned mainly to improve their knowledge of the management system, and contribute to an improvement in the way it works. The next such meeting will be held later in the year.