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The Piccaninny Mountain devastated by out-of-control burn-off: It’s time the community had a say

The Piccaninny Mountain devastated by out-of-control burn-off: It’s time the community had a say

 

By Jane Gibb

I had a terrible day recently that turned into a terrible week. A so-called “fuel reduction burn” got out of control right next to our retreat here at Griffins Hill, devastating the bush – and me, for a while.

My frustration with this totally ineffective, disproven strategy to protect the nearby town of Dunkeld from bush fire left me completely depleted at first. (It might have also been the smoke that choked our home for several days!)

But I’m not going to lie down and take it.

I am now more determined than ever to call for – in a calm and clear way – a complete change to the way decisions are made about bushfire protection in the Grampians and surrounds.

Here’s what’s going wrong

The Picaninny fire, instead of being confined to the lower reaches of the mountain, as stated, shot up the entire north side of the mountain to within 100 metres of its peak and another section then spread around the base  of the southern side – our side. It was so hot that we could feel it standing in our garden 700metres away!

The only accessible Casuarina (she-oak) forest in the Southern Grampians was destroyed in the blaze. Just half a dozen trees remain. A beautiful copse of native pine trees was also destroyed. It will take 30 years for these trees to regrow.

And much of the rest of the northern side of the mountain’s bush is a charred wreck.

As it stands, 87% of the Grampians has been burned by bushfires and fuel reduction burns since 2006. A huge swathe of the Grampians National Park was devastated again by fire last summer (this year), and most of the northern part of the park is closed to walking as a result.

Only two walking tracks in the entire Grampians remained undamaged by fire – The Picaninny Mountain was one. Now that is gone.

Three very good reasons burning-off is a bad idea

1.     It is well documented that so-called “controlled burning” has minimal impact on lives and assets, according to Dr Philip Gibbons, who wrote recently: “Clearing within 40m of a house was the most effective form of fuel reduction being twice as effective as prescribed burns.” (Here is a link Dr Gibbons’ research)

What does have an impact on protecting lives and assets, Dr Gibbons says, is preparation – clearing away anything that might burn from under and around the house, keeping gutters cleared, having protective clothing, fire hoses and water sources at the ready, providing access for fire trucks, evacuation and warning systems

The real threat to Dunkeld comes from the fields of grass that surround the town.

2.     Fire engineer, Harry Wakeling, from Aquila Eco Lodges Dunkeld says burning the bush on The Piccaninny Mountain (or anywhere in the Grampians) will have minimal impact on protecting Dunkeld. He advises us to plough fire break circles around the township of Dunkeld so the fire trucks can access the grasslands and respond quickly to grassfires that can come from any direction.

3.     Tourism in the Grampians has been nearly destroyed by a number of natural disasters and damage from uncontrolled burns since 2006. The devastation wrought by fire is seared into the memory of local and international tourists, and it takes those of us in the tourism sector years to restore interest in our fabulous region.

I am not against fire protection strategies

The aim of this burn – according to the letter I received – was to reduce the chance of ember attack on Dunkeld by reducing undergrowth in the bush and taking some of the stringybark off the trees.

The decision-makers are in Horsham – about 137km from Dunkeld – specifically the Department of Environment and Primary Industries land and fire manager for the Wimmera district, Russell Manning.

But Manning and the Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Ryan Smith, claim in letters to me that the current strategies have Dunkeld community support.

Wrong.

He has the support of the Grampians Asset Protection Group, a group of largely Country Fire Authority members and broad acre farmers who cannot possibly claim to represent our community.

Why?

Because their meetings are closed to the community.

Previously after corresponding with GAPG  I received a suggestion, albeit indirectly via a letter to the local newspaper, that they knew who’s properties Country Fire Authority would not defend indicating the properties of those townspeople who disagreed with their strategies! In this part of the world, that kind of comment is pretty scary.

A reminder to myself to breathe deeply (and still call for change)

It takes patience and sustained energy to grow a beautiful garden, to develop a yoga practice, and to prepare a beautiful meal. It takes patience to instigate change.

I feel strongly about this issue, but my focus is a community one. I want my voice heard, yes, but I also want other people in in Dunkeld and surrounds, including the GAPG and the CFA, to be heard as well.

I’m calling for a process in which we all have an opportunity to both listen and speak; a process that galvanises the community and not one that fractures and fragments it.

I’m willing to listen, if I also have the chance to have my say, and I think there are many other people in the community who feel the same.

Fire doesn’t just threaten lives and assets – it can destroy our economy. I know there are many interests involved, and that the subject is an emotional one for many of us including, I suspect, the members of the GAPG and the CFA. That’s why I think we need some help in sorting out the issues.

I’m calling on the Minister to arrange:

  1. A series of community consultation meetings.
  2. A professional facilitator to manage these meetings, to keep them focused and ensure everyone has a say.
  3. A community-wide survey of views and opinions on bushfire management for those who cannot attend community meetings.
  4. Transparent and open-decision making in future.
  5. Reviews when things go wrong, such as the burn on Picaninny Mountain.

Conclusion

Writing my views in this post has been really therapeutic for me. Just by reading it, you have helped me enormously.

If you have the time, energy and inclination, I’d like to offer you three more ways to help:

  1. Email me and let me know I have your support (). I’ll tally up the total number of responses and tell the Minister how many Griffins Hill guests support better consultation.
  2. Email the Minister for the environment, Ryan Smith, and call for increased community consultation on bushfire management. ()
  3. Share this article.

Many thanks.

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