Australian bushfires raise questions over forest strategies

Fire experts say inadequate fuel reduction strategies in Victoria’s forests may have contributed to the weekend disaster, The Age reports.

Rapid population growth on Melbourne’s fringes may also have been a factor in the high toll, one expert said.

But as Victoria reeled in disbelief at the scale of the disaster, most debate centred on whether to review the decades-old policy of allowing people to defend their homes.

Announcing a Royal Commission, the state’s premier, John Brumby, said the policy of “leave early or stay and defend property” would come under scrutiny.

“It’s served us well for 20 years or more,” Mr Brumby told Radio 3AW. “It’s not true to say that of the fire on Saturday.

“There were many people who had done all of the preparations, had the best fire plans in the world and tragically it didn’t save them.”

But former police ministers Andre Haermeyer and Pat McNamara dismissed one of the alternatives to “stay and fight”, which are forced evacuations.

Mr Haermeyer said that many of the people that had been killed in the fires has been as prepared as they could have been.

“This fire turned so quickly and with such a force, you wonder what systems, what procedures could have given people the chance to get out,” he said.

Mr McNamara added that many people appeared to have died fleeing the bushfires by car, a situation that could have been made worse by forced evacuations.

He said more clearing of native vegetation should be allowed to create a larger buffer between houses and fires.

A former chief of community safety, Naomi Brown, said forced evacuations in the face of bushfires were a simplistic response that could put people in more danger.

“You could have said to everybody on Friday you have to move out, but you don’t know where the fire is going to be,” she said.

Ms Brown, who is chief executive at the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council, warned about jumping to conclusions on fire policy while the fires still burned across Victoria.

“There are a lot of opinions and assumption, but not a lot in the way of evidence,” she said.

One reason why the death toll at the weekend was worse than “Ash Wednesday” (4 Feb 2009), she said, was the increase in people living on the outskirts of Melbourne in the past 25 years.

Fire and community safety experts have raised questions about whether the amount of fuel in the bush in some areas, such as Kinglake, worsened the impact of the fires.

Monash University research fellow and bushfire specialist David Packham laid much of the blame for the devastation on extremely high fuel loads in Victorian forests.

“There has been total mismanagement of the Australian forest environment,” he said.

Source: The Age website

Date: 10/02/2009

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