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Fuel reduction burns in state forests

DATE 23/12/2010

One of the final recommendations of the recent Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was for an increase in that state’s fuel reduction burning program.

The Royal Commission recommended that an annual rolling target of at least five per cent of Victoria’s public land be subject to fuel reduction burns. This recommendation has been adopted by the Victorian Government which has allocated some $400 million to fund the fuel reduction burning program over the next four years.

The Tasmanian Government has considered the Royal Commission’s report and has agreed to attempt to meet a similar target. The Tasmanian Government has accepted that not all vegetation communities found on public lands in Tasmania are types in which fuel reduction burning is possible or would result in an acceptable outcome. Consequently the Tasmanian target is five per cent of the suitable fuel types per year. This will still require a significant increase in the effort devoted to fuel reduction burning.
Fuel reduction burns are an essential strategy to help prevent unplanned and often uncontrollable wildfires which put human life, the natural environment and property at risk.

Forestry Tasmania agrees fuel reduction burning needs to be substantially increased. However the most important factor to consider in planning fuel reduction burns is not so much the area burnt, but the protection that the burning will deliver. Fuel reduction burns must modify fuel loads and be over sufficiently broad belts to provide a reasonable chance of intercepting major fires. By comparison creating a target to burn a gross area without other strategic considerations could cause fuel reduction burning programs to be diverted into areas that are cheaply and easily burnt, such as button grass plains.

An annual target of fuel reduction burning on five per cent of Tasmania’s public land would amount to approximately 60,000 hectares, which would equate to 25,000 hectares of state forest. Forestry Tasmania’s long term average area for fuel reduction burning is 8000 hectares, but this has fallen off during the past 10 years or so, with huge annual variations in the areas burnt. For example in 2002/3 only 89 hectares were burnt while in 2007/8 the area burnt was 7800 hectares.

Carrying out burns over 25,000 hectares of state forest each year may not be the best use of resources, or necessarily deliver better protection for people or the environment. In addition this target doesn’t take into consideration the strict regulatory environment that now exists in relation to issues such as smoke and threatened species protection, nor of the likely public objection to the smoke which will inevitably result from the work.

Our ability to undertake hazard reduction burns is also restricted by the expectations and requirements of the owners of adjoining properties, wind and other weather conditions, community events and smoke management. Suitable weather conditions are critical and may necessitate repeated postponement of a prescribed burn so that the fire remains within control. A final consideration when burning in spring is the possibility of residual fires smouldering in heavy logs or stumps, which may come to life in the summer under high fire danger conditions.

When all of these considerations are taken into account it is clear there will be limited opportunities for fuel reduction, and every suitable opportunity should be seized and used. Along with the Tasmania Fire Service and Parks and Wildlife Service, Forestry Tasmania is a participant in the four-year Strategic Fuel Reduction Burning Implementation Plan initiated by the Tasmanian Government in 2007. This is the final financial year for which funding under this program is guaranteed. The Tasmanian Government has also allocated $500,000 towards strategic broad-acre burning this financial year, with the funds to be managed by the Parks and Wildlife Service.

The challenge for Forestry Tasmania staff is to maximise the benefit to both the community and the forest estate of the fuel reduction program which the government has adopted.Fire management specialists from Forestry Tasmania and the Parks and Wildlife Service are working with the Tasmania Fire Service to develop a strategy to deliver the government’s expectations. At the moment the vision is for a program which will commence in the north-east and then expand to the south of the state followed by the north-west, reaching full capacity in three to four years’ time.