By Michael Giles

THE State Government seems to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in deciding to dump its annual five per cent target for fuel reduction burns.
On hearing about the decision last week, respected bushfire scientist, David Packham, warned that scrapping the target was dangerous and that the state should strive, instead, to burn at least 10 per cent of public land in Victoria each year for safety reasons.
He said Victoria had by far the worst record of any state in Australia when it came to fatal bushfires and it shouldn’t be doing away with measures designed to reduce the risk.
Of course, eliminating all measurable performance criteria is standard procedure for large bureaucracies and where government departments are concerned, they make an art form out of it.
They are particularly reluctant to commit to performance standards that might make them responsible when tragedies occur.
Instead of at least having an aspirational target to reduce the fire risk, Victorian Environment Minister Lisa Neville threw up a smoke screen last week claiming a strict hectare-based system, which was recommended by the Royal Commission into the Black Saturday Bushfires, did not necessarily reduce the risk.
“It’s not about saying we’re going to be doing less or more hectares, it’s about making sure that where we are burning, we’re going to get the best benefits and the best reduction in risk to communities, to property and life,” she said.
But make no mistake though, it does mean less area will be burned.
Her comments, and the change in policy came after the State Government released the findings of an independent investigation into the runaway Lancefield fire, which resulted from a planned burn that broke containment lines in hot and windy conditions in early October this year, taking out 3000ha of farmland and four houses in the process.
But even victims of that fire said the planned burn targets should not be scrapped.
The real problem with the Lancefield fire, similar to the situation at Hallston a few years ago, is that the department failed to acknowledge predictions of deteriorating weather conditions and only had minimal staff rostered on, based on an ‘everything going to plan’ scenario.
This situation was made worse when the department failed to scale up resources as the problem escalated.
The report also noted the following:
“Interviews also revealed that there is a resignation by staff that district resources and budgets are tight and this may result in resources at a burn being “thin”.
So the real problems were poor decision making and a lack of government funding in regional areas to do the job properly and safely.
This change of policy isn’t going to fix that problem. It’s going to cover it up.
The government and its department won’t have to meet a fuel reduction target and the government will be free to put even less money to necessary works in regional areas.
The victims, of course, will be those in the path of the next destructive bushfire emanating from or being fuelled by unburnt public land.