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When the 'green dream' becomes a bushfire nightmare

By Mark Poynter - posted Monday, 2 June 2014


In early May in the remote East Gippsland hamlet of Goongerah, local community representatives presented Victoria's most senior fire officers with a litany of allegations of mismanagement over last summer's Goongerah – Deddick Trail bushfire, and called for an independent inquiry in a news report on ABC TV.

Goongerah is spread-out along an 8 km length of cleared land hugging the flats of a narrow valley, but is surrounded by extensive public forests that stretch virtually unbroken in some directions for over 50 km. Once a tiny farming and sawmilling community, it is now a haven for 'close-to-nature' lifestylers and has become the region's epicentre of environmental activism.

The Goongerah – Deddick Trail fire started as a series of small lightning strikes within these nearby forests, but steadily grew into a fire that eventually burnt through 166,000 hectares of forest and private land over a 53-day period. During this time it threatened life and property at Goongerah, and other small communities nearby, including Bonang and Tubbut.

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The local community's concerns about the fire's management are centred on five areas which it would like to see addressed. These include changing the current culture of fire-fighting; reverting to the tactics formerly used to fight forest fires; redressing the lack of resources available for fire-fighting, as well as improving communication with local communities and having greater respect for their concerns. These relate primarily to the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) which carries responsibility for controlling bushfires on public lands.

As part of one of the world's three most fire-prone regions, East Gippsland is no stranger to serious bushfires and from the 1970s, the Victorian government's forestry agency had developed arguably one of the world's best fire management models. To those who've worked in East Gippsland's forests in the past, the current allegations regarding the Goongerah – Deddick Trail bushfire are suggestive of a sad decline in the formerly accepted standards and culture of forest and fire management.

Understanding how and why this decline has occurred is the key to understanding the alleged mismanagement of the Goongerah – Deddick Trail fire. The answers are at least partly contained in an internal DEPI Discussion Paper prepared in June 2013, which was recently leaked to the Weekly Times. It examines the challenges of meeting the higher annual fuel reduction burning target recommended by the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. These challenges are also relevant to DEPI's summer fire-fighting effort.

According to the Discussion Paper, the loss of much of Victoria's native hardwood timber industry is particularly significant because it has substantially reduced access to the suitable machinery and bush-experienced operators and foresters who were the conerstone of the strong culture of bushfire prevention and suppression which formerly prevailed in Victoria's most fire-prone region.

With regard to East Gippsland, the Discussion Paper notes that:

"Over the past 10 years in East Gippsland, timber harvesting contractors have declined from over 80 employees working for 25 companies to around 45 employees working for the remaining 12 contractors.......... This trend is forecast to continue and the decline in the timber industry is not expected to improve in the long term."

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Over the same period, VicForests, who manages commercial timber production in the region, has also lost around one-third of its workforce. The regional losses of forestry and industry personnel are actually far greater when considered over a longer timeframe stretching back to the 1980s, when Victoria's overall fire management capability was arguably at its peak.

The substantial loss of the timber industry has largely broken the traditional funding and resourcing nexus for fire-fighting, as well as critical preparatory acivities such as forest road and track maintenance. This has already been noticable for many years in the diminished condition of the forest road and track network and the greater difficulty of quickly accessing significant bushfires.

The significance of reduced access to equipment and experienced bush operators now makes it more challenging for DEPI to properly resource the fire-fighting effort, and reduces their capacity to directly attack fires to quickly control them. Accordingly, fires are now more likely to be fought indirectly by conducting large scale back-burns from major roads and tracks – a strategy that typically allows fires to burn much larger areas while often substantially increasing the time taken to control them. These are criticisms that the community raised in relation to the Goongerah-Deddick Trail fire.

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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