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Lessons not yet learned: a bushfire tragedy

By Max Rheese - posted Monday, 16 February 2009

Apart from the terrible human and animal suffering from the continuing bushfire crisis in Victoria, the tragedy of this event is the failure of public land managers to heed lessons already learned from past holocausts.

The extent of this horrific disaster - by far the worst Australia has experienced - has been magnified by indifference to basic rules of fire management, ignoring the wisdom of expert fire managers and political acquiescence to the pressure of city-based green lobby groups.

This week Australia has witnessed the fatal results of misguided green activism over three decades that is steeped in ideology rather than forest science. A dogged determination to oppose realistic prescribed burn targets has produced fuel loads in many parks and reserves that are a disaster waiting to happen.


To be sure, there were many other factors in play on Black Saturday that contributed to this unstoppable fire-storm. Weather on the day - as well as the preceding week - the effects of a ten-year drought, some climatic change over recent decades and many more houses in rural areas.

However, it is a fact that until public land managers and governments are held accountable for fire management practices on public land - as private landholders currently are - there will be further unnecessary loss of life due to recurring intense conflagrations such as those witnessed in 1939, 1943, 1962,1969,1977,1983, 2003 and 2006.

Numerous inquiries and the 1939 Stretton Royal Commission identified the core issues in adapting to fire in the Victorian landscape. The most fundamental of these and the criterion of forest management that we have the most control over is the level of fuel in the forest, yet the leverage that forest managers could have on potential fire-storms through fuel management is consistently cast aside. Judge Stretton stated: “Fire management should be the paramount consideration of the forest manager”. Clearly, this has not been the case in Victoria for decades.

Tom Griffiths in his book Forests of Ash recounts some of the evidence given at the Stretton Royal Commission by mountain graziers and sawmillers where they were hounded by the Forests Commission to stop their practice of cool-burning the bush on a regular basis. The people who lived and worked in the bush became fearful of the “dirty” bush that was a result. The thick, scrubby undergrowth that they regarded as a fire trap was all incinerated in the Black Friday fires of 1939.

Decades later the Victorian Auditor General noted in his report on fire management in 1992 that:

… fuel reduction burnings had not been adequately implemented.


And in 2003 he noted that:

… further work is needed in a number of critical areas [such as] increased focus on strategic management of hazard reduction on public land, to ensure that appropriate targets are set, resources are provided for their achievement and performance is monitored. However, there has been a consistent failure to achieve hazard reduction targets.

And ominously:

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About the Author

Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

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