Preparedness for fire in Loch Sport discussed in community meeting

A large crowd gathered at the Loch Sport Public Hall to discuss fire management in and around the town.
A large crowd gathered at the Loch Sport Public Hall to discuss fire management in and around the town.

FEARS Loch Sport could become "another Mallacoota" has fuelled an emotional debate about fire preparedness in the coastal town.

At a community meeting on Saturday more than 300 people spilled from the Loch Sport Public Hall to discuss fire prevention strategies.

Loch Sport Fishing Association president Colin Johnson, who called for the meeting, said people in the town were "angry" that the bodies responsible for managing the area's fire risk had been "making excuses" for years.

"This is the largest ever turnout for a community meeting in Loch Sport, which shows the intensity of emotion," he said.

"People in Loch Sport feel like nobody is listening to them."

With fires already having burnt thousands of hectares in east Gippsland, and killed at least four people in Victoria, residents fear a fire in Loch Sport would be a disaster.

"It could be another Mallacoota," Mr Johnson said.

"We are surrounded by bush and there's only one road in and one road out."

The Victorian coastal town of Mallacoota, which has a similar geographical make-up to Loch Sport, was hit by catastrophic fires on the last day of 2019, with thousands of people trapped and eventually being airlifted out or evacuated by ship by the Australian military.

The meeting was organised by the Loch Sport Community Representatives Group, which was able to work quickly to put together a panel of stakeholders and get the word out to the community.

CRG member Eileen Grange said residents and holidaymakers were clearly concerned about the dry conditions and the increased fire risk, and it was important for everyone to be able to voice their concerns.

Loch Sport Fishing Association vice president Ren Renehan said there was growing concern in the Loch Sport community about the amount of tinder-dry fuel in surrounding national parks, and vegetation management by private landowners and the shire in town.

"This area has already been identified as 'high risk' by the Royal Commission into the [2009] fires, yet we are still in the same position," he said.

"There is always the same excuse about 'no window of opportunity to clear undergrowth' and with road clearing divided between VicRoads, the shire and the department, nobody is stepping up and doing anything.

"Fire prevention burns were supposed to happen three years ago, but we are still waiting."

A panel of government and department officials, including Gippsland South MLA Danny O'Brien, representatives from Eastern Victoria MLC Jane Garrett's office, the CFA, SES, Parks Victoria and DELWP, as well as the Gunaikurnai Land and Water Corporation (GLaWAC), listened as residents told of their fears that Loch Sport was poorly prepared for changing weather patterns of intense heat and reduced rainfall.

Mr Johnson said residents were concerned the firebreak on the road into Loch Sport had "slowly crept in over the years" and there was thick scrub under power lines at various locations, as well as trees that could fall directly across the power lines and cause power blackouts.

"We need to be proactive and not reactive," he said.

"Maintaining road access is critical as we have an elderly population, some not capable of leaving by boat."

Loch Sport resident Michelle Robinson raised concerns last year about the fuel loads in the national park that surrounds Loch Sport.

Loch Sport resident Michelle Robinson raised concerns last year about the fuel loads in the national park that surrounds Loch Sport.

Mr Johnson said residents were calling for the immediate clearing of road verges on the Loch Sport Rd, the clearing of all undergrowth around AusNet poles, and maintenance of firebreaks at either end of town.

He said it was "totally unacceptable" that firebreaks were not being maintained.

"I have always stated Loch Sport punches above its weight, so now is the time to do something," he said.

Mr Johnson said he was not criticising the local CFA, who he said did "a great job", because it was not its responsibility to maintain road access.

Gippsland South MLA Danny O'Brien initiated a petition on the day to present to parliament, calling for urgent fire prevention action for Loch Sport.

"I will take the concerns of the community back to the state government and ensure their voice is heard," he said.

"I have already written to both the Minister for Emergency Services and the Minister for Environment about these issues, but a strong petition will help," he said.

Mr O'Brien said the petition would be available in local businesses during the next few weeks ahead of the return of parliament in February.

He congratulated the Community

Representatives Group and moderator Craig Holland for calling and hosting the meeting, as well as "the people of Loch Sport who came together in a considered manner to express their desire for action to protect their town".