Burning public land – keeping a watching brief

The world has shifted on its axis – just a little! The 5% target has gone, and in its place is a ‘risk’ based approach. Based on the drop-in session in Castlemaine on 1 June 2016, and noting the comments posted by FOBIF after the session in Bendigo the week before, here’s my take on it.

Before the burn: Demo Track west side

Targets have gone

Many burns on the previous FOP (Fire Operations Plan) have been ‘withdrawn’ because they were not needed as part of a strategic approach or (in one instance) couldn’t be achieved effectively (see below).

The risk landscape analysis method has been used to identify a few new planned burns based on risk – but nothing for the Muckleford Forest so far.

Burns withdrawn

In the Newstead-Maldon area, the planned burns that have been withdrawn are:

  • West side of Mt Tarrangower: this was a planned burn of 518.5ha scheduled for autumn 2018. The rationale for withdrawing this burn is that it would be difficult to achieve safely (steep slopes). A better solution might be a firebreak to the west on private land, given that the main risk is a grass fire running from farmland into the Mt Tarrangower reserve and then straight up those steep slopes – but despite the new ‘tenure-neutral’ approach, this option was not shown on the plan.
  • Goughs Range: this was a planned burn of 8ha, scheduled for autumn 2018.

 Burns or treatments going ahead

  • Newstead – CAS056: a small area, already approved and close to town, but on the south east side and the rationale for a burn has not been clearly explained
  • Maldon – CAS048: series of small areas, mainly mulching and near town (MULGA exclosure plots now recognised and excluded)

What seems tricky?

1 – What is the FOP process this year?

It seems like the drop-in sessions in Bendigo and Castlemaine are the consultation on the draft FOP – I have asked for a copy of the plans for our area and will post on this blog once I get them; comments are welcome until the end of June. A draft FOP will be signed off in July and be made public in August. In previous years, the draft FOP has been published for comment.

2 – Zoning review

There is a review of zoning underway. The zoning determines the approach taken when a planned burn is done, and the percentage of the landscape to be burnt. The first stage of the review is looking at APZ and BMZ:

There are four fire management zones:

  • Asset Protection Zone (APZ): where intensive fuel management provides the highest level of localised protection to human life and property by reducing radiant heat and ember attack
  • Bushfire Moderation Zone (BMZ): where there is fuel management to reduce the speed and intensity of bushfires, either close to towns or as they spread through the landscape
  • Landscape Management Zone (LMZ): where fuel management is done to reduce fuel hazard, improve ecosystem resilience and manage the land for particular uses (such as forest regeneration and water catchment protection)
  • Planned Burning Exclusion Zone (PBEZ): where there is no planned burning, mainly to protect particular areas that can’t tolerate fire.

The current zoning is shown on Map 7 (page 25) of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan: West Central. From what I could see on the draft zoning plans, this review will increase the areas covered by the two zones (APZ and BMZ) and this will mean a high percentage of those landscapes will be burnt. It will also reduce the area of LMZ (there are almost no PBEZ areas across the whole region). The test is whether these changes are really strategic and focused on risk-reduction. I was told the review of the APZ and BMZ zones is focusing on risk to life and property. This review is expected to be made public for comment in the next month.

There will then be a review of the LMZ which may take 1-2 years; it will seek to establish specific objectives for blocks within each LMZ and these might range from protecting old growth Box-Ironbark from burns for 100 years, to burning to create a range of age classes, to burning to control gorse etc.

A draft of the revised zones – apparently based on the risk landscapes approach – was up on the wall. One of the proposals presented to the Bendigo drop-in session the previous week got a pretty strong reaction, and an alternative with a very reduced BMZ was on the wall in Castlemaine. The draft proposal for the Muckleford Forest includes a new area of BMZ around Spring Hill Track, another to the south of the highway at Green Gully, and a large area across the northern side (Maldon Historic Reserve/Smiths Reef area).

But why not review all the zones together to achieve a more holistic, integrated approach to sustaining and recovering our forests. And despite the new Safer Together policy, DELWP are again solely focused on public land. The Safer Together policy says:

This new approach sees us move from a hectare target for planned burns, to a risk reduction target for bushfire management. It means a more integrated approach across public and private land, with fuel management just one of the range of different management actions we will take to protect lives, homes, jobs and the environment.

The approach presented by DELWP shows no evidence of being ‘tenure neutral’ – either in relation to the new risk-reduction burns, nor in the zoning review. Why not?

Is the zoning review just a back door way to continue large burns on public land? We need to understand the rationale for the proposed zoning changes and what actions will be taken within each zone – for example, what is the proposed frequency of planned burns? What monitoring will be undertaken to confirm that fuel loads and therefore risk have been reduced? And when will a strategic, tenure-neutral plan be produced?

3 – Community knowledge

Again I raised the importance of integrating community knowledge into the data sets they are using – particularly around biodiversity. The Dja Dja Wurrung Community Plan is going to be considered, and there will be a careful exploration of some cultural burns (hurrah!) but what about the knowledge of others – those who walk these landscapes, care for them, study them. There is no process for bringing that knowledge into DEWLP’s practice. And when I asked about this, the answer was that the community will continue to be offered the opportunity to comment on plans. Or we can enter our data into the very complex Victorian Biodiversity Atlas if we have the time and energy. But where is the outreach by DEWLP to help gather in the valuable information held by knowledgeable individuals, groups and communities?

One response to “Burning public land – keeping a watching brief

  1. Thanks for this summary Chris. There is a lot to absorb here and worth being alert to the key questions as outlined.

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