Phillip Hopkins

THE state government’s residual risk policy, which includes areas burnt by wildfire, must be abandoned so that Victorian communities are safer and less hit by bushfires in the future, according to a leading forestry group.

The policy should be discarded and replaced by the recommendation of the Black Saturday 2009 Royal Commission report for a long-term prescribed burning based on an annual rolling target of five per cent minimum of public land, says the South East Timber Association (SEATA).

SEATA, which includes members with extensive fire mitigation and firefighting experience, advocates for active and adaptive management of native forests on private and public land.

SEATA set out its approach in a submission to the draft bushfire policy released by DELWP in July.

The current policy has a residual risk of 70 per cent.

If less planned burning contributes to more area burnt by wildfire, the government can still meet the residual risk target of 70 per cent or less. If residual risk is 100 per cent – there has been no fire in the landscape and no fuel reduced and Victorian forests are at maximum risk where fires will spread and have an impact. If residual risk is at 70 per cent – the impacts to life and property will be reduced only by about a third.

Key SEATA recommendations are:

The full details of residual risk modelling and assumptions should be released to the public, and;

A truly independent panel of bushfire research scientists, with strong practical and theoretical understanding of bushfire behaviour and fire ecology, should be appointed to review the validity of the outputs from the bushfire residual risk model.

SEATA said the 2009 Royal Commission’s policy of burning a fixed percentage of hectares per year was replaced by the Safer Together Policy in 2015.

DELWP set a state aide target top maintain bushfire residual risk at, or below, 70 per cent, which includes the 70 per cent residual risk.

“This means the risk of a major fire, like Black Saturday, would be reduced by about a third,” the policy said.

“This new approach sees our management moving from a hectare target to a risk reduction target for bushfire management.”

SEATA said the 2009 Royal Commission recorded that the then annual fuel reduction of about two per cent was inadequate compared to the recommended five per cent each year.

“The department failed to reach the target in all years up to until 2016. Since commencement of the residual risk approach, the average area treated annually has declined by one third,” SEATA said.

“SEATA members continue to be perplexed that the bushfire burnt area can be used in the calculation of residual risk, despite the environmental devastation inflicted by high intensity bushfires. Why is that fire and land management agencies could meet, what is presumably a key performance measure, by undertaking less mitigation burning and seeming to rely on high intensity bushfires every few years, to meet the target?”

SEATA said two researchers from RMIT and Austria analysed the hectare-based approach and the risk-based policy. They found that the hectare-based approach scored 13 out of a maximum 48, while the risk-based policy scored 40 out of 48.

“SEATA members, some with over 40 years of fire mitigation and firefighting experience, are dumbfounded by the scoring,” said SEATA secretary, Peter Rutherford, in the submission.

“These academics appear to be lacking in the necessary bush science and environmental skills needed to provide an informed analysis on which of the two policies is most appropriate from a bushfire/risk management perspective.”