On Tuesday October 9 DSE officials met with about 30 individuals and representatives of conservation groups to discuss outcomes of the consultation process around the Fire Operations Plan.
The discussion was limited by the fact that the biggest factor in fire management and practice is the government’s directive to DSE to burn 5% of public land, and this is not negotiable. It seems that DSE has a ‘burn reform’ process under way, but details of how this might improve environmental management are completely vague. For the moment we have to confront the fact that, in the words of one DSE official: ‘The elephant in the room is that the burning program is going to have effects on the environment.’ Changes in this program have to come from changes in the political arena.
Although FOBIF believes that the 5% target is foolish, we think that improved practice can limit the damage which overburning causes. We are therefore keen to engage DSE in any way which can improve environmental practice without compromising public safety.
From the general to the specific
Discussion therefore centred on operational matters. The following comments by DSE officials are a representative sample:
‘We have a duty as public servants to ensure that good information underpins decision making.’
‘Our duty is to put in place protection measures based on information received.’
‘Through this process it is our duty to have all values identified in all burn units.’
We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of these statements—but they have to be put up against the brute fact that DSE data bases have been unable to accommodate information accumulated over the years.
Burns are managed according to general principles, not detailed local information. This is a fundamental deficiency in the operations. There is a further practical problem. Burn areas are assessed by biodiversity staff for ‘every single value’ recorded for that area, and these are incorporated in the burn plans. But this is a desk based activity: on the ground topography or weather conditions might mean that the workers managing the fire may not be able to work around these values. The brutal reality is that they have to be practical. In the words of the biodiversity officer: ‘they take [biodiversity] advice on board knowing that they still have a target to reach.’ In other words, biodiversity–and therefore forest health–comes second to achieving the target.
In addition, it’s increasingly clear that managing these operations demands a high level of skill, commitment and resources. When asked about the last of these, DSE’s answer was vague. We believe that in this, as in most areas of land management, resourcing is poor, and is limited mainly to getting the fire lit and finished with: complex biodiversity and fuel matters are secondary. Recent staff cutbacks to DSE tend to confirm this view. We are often assured by Government that ‘front line’ staff are not affected. What this means is that the Department is hollowed out, and that the very support front line staff need is not available.
Research and practice
This point is illustrated by a question from the audience: ‘How can you get your research data to inform your practice?’ This question surfaced in different forms throughout the evening— for example: ‘How is your monitoring of previous or adjacent burns used to improve your practice? Give us a specific example of monitoring information which has changed your burn plan?’ Answers to this tend to be very general: that is, related to statewide research programs, rather than monitoring done on specific burns. On this occasion, however, we were told that the new approach to Zone 3 [that is, the intention to burn discrete areas, rather than lighting a fire and hoping the conditions will create a suitable mosaic] is a result of observing problems with previous burns. Asked about the contradictions we have heard about burn coverage in Zone 3 areas [20%? 40%? 40%+? 50%?] the fire management officer affirmed that 20-40% is the intended coverage. He noted also: ‘We are learning by doing.’
We’ll be watching this one very closely.
What’s actually happening on the ground?
Asked about the possibility that the supposed objectives of burn operations are being ignored by those managing the fires, Scott Falconer, [Land and Fire Regional Manager] said: ‘We will hold burn Officers-in-charge accountable for achievement of burn objectives. We don’t want systemic issues where people are not following prescriptions.’