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Monday, 27 February 2006
Page: 60

Mr McARTHUR (4:24 PM) —I rise to grieve the losses experienced through the recent January bushfires in Victoria. The weekend of 21 and 22 January experienced extreme weather conditions which sparked some 276 fires across Victoria. Of these fires, the ones that got out of control were started on public land and then went on to burn private land, threatening towns and private property. These fires, which started in national parks, were a re-run of the 2003 fires in north-east Victoria, East Gippsland and here in Canberra. The authorities have learnt nothing. Minimal fuel reduction burning in these parks provided the ideal set of conditions for the devastation that ensued. Parks and DSE firefighters were reluctant to vigorously extinguish the first lightning strikes. The state public land managers have not learnt the lessons of the 2003 bushfires. They have continued to lock up and neglect public parks and allowed fire access tracks to become barricaded and blocked, and they have not attacked lightning strikes.

There have been major fire events at Mount Lubra in the Grampians, the Brisbane Ranges in Anakie and Kinglake and Moondarra near Erica in Gippsland. The fire in the Brisbane Ranges occurred on the north-eastern boundary of the Corangamite electorate, near the town of Anakie. I have spoken to farmers, landowners and volunteer firefighters who were involved in the effort to put out this fire and protect lives, livestock, property and homes. The fire burnt almost 7,000 hectares and destroyed at least four homes. The experiences of volunteer firefighters and landowners seeking to put out these fires have been heart-wrenching. The Mount Lubra bushfires in the Grampians burnt an area of 130,000 hectares, with a perimeter around the fire of 360 kilometres. The losses from the Grampians fires reported to date have been 40 dwellings; 62,000 sheep; 160 cattle; 73 wool, hay and machinery sheds; 36,000 hectares of pasture; 10,000 tonnes of hay; 1,923 kilometres of fencing; 315 hectares of plantations; and 3,052 beehives. Some other major fires over the same period were the Moondarra fires near Erica in Gippsland, where 15,000 hectares were burnt; the Burgan Track fire at Kinglake, where 1,700 hectares were burnt; the Heywood fire in the electorate of Wannon, where 1,300 hectares were burnt; and the nearby Bessiebelle fire, where 1,400 hectares were burnt.

The Mount Lubra fire, started by a lightning strike, was not attacked aggressively and controlled early. That is exactly the same experience as in 2003 when Canberra suburbs were burnt, as related by Val Jeffrey, a former chairman of the ACT Bushfire Council and an experienced firefighter, to the House of Representatives inquiry into the 2003 bushfires, of which I was a very vigorous participant, as you were, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams. Mr Jeffrey said:

When those fires started with lightning strikes on 8 January, they should have been attacked immediately, hard and heavily with everything we could have thrown at them. That is the way we would have done it in the past. We never lost a lightning strike in my experience since the 1939 fire, so why did we lose them on 8 January? We did not try, frankly, as sad as it seems, to put those fires out. They could have been put out. Those fires were virtually all accessible by vehicle. They were not like some of the lightning strikes that I have fought over the years where you would have to walk for two or three hours to get to them, carrying knapsacks, chainsaws and everything you could get there or be dropped in by a helicopter onto a flat granite rock or ride a horse for a couple of hours ...

Part of bushfire fighting culture is that you control lightning strikes by 10 o’clock the next morning or you are in trouble. We have done that over the years and we have done it successfully. We had not lost them before. But nobody seemed to want to put these out. I do not know why. I keep asking myself why, in the middle of January, in the middle of a drought and with the highest fuel loads ever, nobody seemed to want to put those fires out. It is just sickening.

Last Thursday the Stretton Group hosted a public forum on the bushfires, in Melbourne, under the theme ‘National parks: lock ’em up and let ’em burn’. The Stretton Group is an apolitical, not-for-profit group, established in December 2003 following the disastrous south-east Australian bushfire crisis in 2002-03. The Stretton Group comprises volunteers experienced in botany, forestry and fire management, and farmers who support the protection of the natural environment through greater transparency of the public sector agencies involved. I am honoured to act as convenor of the group—first among equals. This eminent group comprises Athol Hodgson, forester; Peter Attiwill, botanist; Simon Paton, farmer; Bill Middleton, forester; and David Packham, bushfire researcher. The Stretton Group was named after the respected royal commissioner into the 1939 bushfires, Justice Leonard Stretton. The group proposes that government managed parks and forests should be provided with a balance sheet value which encapsulates the environmental, cultural and economic value of these assets.

Last week the forum featured four speakers who were intimately involved in the recent fires. They were invited to share their experiences and put them on the public record. Jeremy Upton, the manager of Yarram Park, near the Grampians, recounted the poor management and conduct of the firefighting effort in the Grampians National Park, coordinated by the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment. Yarram Park lost one-third of the farm and 80 kilometres of fencing to the fires. CFA officer Simon Armitage discussed the regulatory and bureaucratic impediments and barriers put in front of knowledgeable and experienced local firefighters who had to risk breaking rules and regulations to put out the fires.

In a similar vein, Durdidwarrah farmer Daryl Ferry, who is a neighbour to the Brisbane Ranges National Park near Anakie, told how having a poorly managed park allowed fuel loads to increase and access tracks to be closed. The DSE wanted to fight the fire on private land instead of attacking the fire in the park. Mr Ferry ultimately had to take bulldozers into the park, outside the direction from officials, to construct a western firebreak to protect his own farm and his farming neighbours. And CFA volunteer and Meredith farmer Robert Cooke reported on the efforts of volunteers using clapped-out old trucks for private units in successfully fighting off the fire and protecting the town of Anakie while the ‘Department of Scorched Earth’, as he put it, proved ineffective in combating the blaze.

The public land managers have failed to reduce the extreme fuel loads that turn small fires into uncontrollable hot blazes. Park officials have stood in the way of volunteer efforts to put out the fires, through a misguided sense of environmental protection. As Robert Cooke put it, the protection of parks has been taken over by ‘tree-huggers’, and there is a need for a return to practical policies of forest management.

If the community is to be serious about minimising the risk of bushfire in country Australia, there is a simple proposition that should be adopted in policy: if state government lock up a park to protect the environmental values then they must accept responsibility to manage that park; and, if a fire breaks out of the park then the state should accept responsibility for any damage caused. This is the same principle which applies to private landholders. We have seen too often in recent times that governments are quick to lock up parks to win the environmental vote, but they are lacking when it comes to allocating the necessary resources to protect the environmental values in the park or to protect neighbouring communities.

The 2003 fires demonstrated there is no environmental value to be protected after a major bushfire has gone through, leaving total destruction and death, wiping out birds, bees, reptiles, wild flowers, protected species and trees. Some key activities that public land managers need to embrace to protect parks and forests, and neighbouring rural communities, from fires include an active regime of fuel reduction burns—or green burning, as some people like to call it—to keep fuel loads down; the retention and maintenance of fire access tracks; and park firefighting services to aggressively attack all fires in the first instance, particularly lightning strikes.

There were two lives lost in the Victorian fires. This was a needless tragedy. The worst thing about these disasters is knowing that more could have been done to prevent the damage, the loss of environmental assets and the loss of private property, livestock and human life. Over recent weeks I have encouraged bushfire affected landowners and CFA volunteers to document carefully their experiences of the fires—what went wrong and what was done successfully to control the fires.

The Stretton Group will use the experiences of volunteer firefighters and landowners to push for reforms to forest management to encourage fuel reduction burns, the re-opening of fire access tracks and the adoption of firefighting protocols which place a premium on aggressively fighting fires in the first instance instead of merely waiting for them to burn their way out of the parks and into the open country of private land.

This is an important issue to me and to my constituents in Corangamite who live amongst the new Otway National Park. The Otways have not burnt for 25 years, since Ash Wednesday, and a fire disaster is waiting to happen. The Victorian Bracks government has recently locked up more areas of park but has failed to allocate adequate resources to protect from future fires. This summer’s fire season is not yet over, but we hope not to see a major fire in the Otways. The Victorian government must urgently learn the lessons from 2003 that have not been learnt in the Grampians and Brisbane Ranges and must apply improved practices to the management of the Otways and other parks in Victoria. There should be a national commitment to better management and accountability over public land control which has been locked up by state and federal governments.