As planned burning starts in central Victoria, it remains a contentious bushfire mitigation method

TO most people spring time means flowers in full blume, welcome sunshine and perhaps a bit of hay fever.

But to the Department of Environment and Primary Industries and the Country Fire Authority, spring means preparation. 

As summer looms, the two authorities are ramping up efforts to protect communities from bushfires.

What's happening now

On Friday, DEPI notified travellers along the Wimmera, Sunraysia and Calder highways that they would see smoke from burn-offs in Bridgewater, Beasleys Bridge, St Arnaud, Kingower, Rheola, Bealiba and Stuart Mill.

This month, weather permitting, the CFA and DEPI will conduct planned burns around Bendigo, Castlemaine, Heathcote, Inglewood and Maryborough. 

For 2014-15 the state government is spending $358 million on planned burning land and fire management - the largest amount ever allocated for one year. 

The relationship between the CFA and DEPI has always been close, but this week their partnership for bushfire management was formalised with extra funding and a commitment to provide the CFA with training. 

Police and emergency services minister Kim Wells on Monday said an increased planned burning program would provide an extra $800,000 for the CFA to boost its capacity to conduct burning on private and public land.

In recent times

In the last three years, planned burns have reached a 30-year high with 700,000 hectares of Victorian land burned over the last four years. 

The increase came after recommendations put to the state government during the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, held in the wake of the Black Saturday fires.

Since then, DEPI has had increasing targets each year for the number of hectares to burn. 

Targets

DEPI fire and emergency management executive director Lee Miezis said the target this year was 275,000 hectares. That's up from 260,000 last year and 250,000 the year before. 

With only 17,500 hectares burned since July this year, there's a lot more burning to do to reach this year's target. 

Why do planned burns?

Mr Miezis said planned burning aimed to remove dead wood, leaf litter, bark and other flammable matter that act as powerful fuel for bushfires. 

"Fires become less intense, it slows them down, they are easier to control before they threaten lives and other assets," Mr Miezis said.

He said planned burning was a combination of science and technology with local knowledge from firefighters. 

He said DEPI used a sophisticated program developed with the University of Melbourne, called Phoenix Rapid Fire, to model how bushfires were likely to spread across the landscape. 

"It simulates how bushfires spread based on factors like the vegetation, the weather and the terrain," Mr Miezis said.

"There’s lot of evidence that reduction of fuel loads really changes fire behaviour and allows firefighters to have a greater chance of fighting the fire."

There’s lot of evidence that reduction of fuel loads really changes fire behaviour and allows firefighters to have a greater chance of fighting the fire. - Lee Miezis

He said planned burning had kept bushfire risk to a "manageable level" in recent years. 

"The protection of human life is paramount," he said.

Opposition to planned burning

There are some in the community, who are just as concerned for the wildlife and Landcare network facilitator Judy Crocker is one of them.   

In the past, she has fought hard for the forest areas she loves - Lockwood South State Forest and Shelbourne Nature Conservation Reserve.

"They burnt Shelbourne Forest. We asked them not to many times of course, but they did anyway," Ms Crocker said. 

"They don’t patch burn they just absolutely cook it from one end to the other.

"In burning like that they actually remove all the ground litter, so that there is no food left.

"If there’s any small animals in there of course they get cooked anyway.

Ms Crocker said she and her group were trying to save threatened species. 

"We had birds in that area who were very short on habitat nutrients," she said.

She said the burn-offs took habitat from the bushstone curlew - a ground-dwelling bird that eats and lives on the ground.

"If they just do some patch burning they leave some food behind," she said. 

Questioning the targets

Ms Crocker said the government was too focused on meeting area targets instead of burning only what was necessary. 

Bendigo East candidate for the Greens Jennifer Alden said her party's thoughts were similar. 

"The Greens support fuel reduction burns, and note that the bushfire royal commission implementation monitor, Neil Comrie, says that the government should implement a burning plan that is based on reducing risk to people, property and the environment, rather than just burning a certain number of hectares each year," Ms Alden said. 

Community engagement

Ms Crocker acknowledged DEPI had made an effort in the last 12 months to involve Landcare in its actions. 

"What they’ve said is they want to sit down with me and talk about it," she said. 

Andy Koren is overseeing planned burning for DEPI in the Loddon Mallee region and said he was involved in engagement with a wide variety of groups including traditional indigenous owners, councils, water authorities and conservation groups. 

He said the department took into consideration seasonality for birds and breeding and created exclusion areas to leave for wildlife, such as the elthan copper butterfly and the swift parrot.

Mr Koren said crews ran water through hoses down creeks near Bendigo to protect frog species.

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