Bushfire Preparedness for 2023 summer

Melina BATH (Eastern Victoria) (17:30): My statement on reports is on bushfire preparedness for the summer of 2023, and it comes from the budget papers – budget paper 3, page 41, for reference. If you who live in country Victoria, you know we have had over the last three years very good rains; we have had a lot of fuel load build-up – a lot of green grass, a lot of foliage build-up – and this is a grave concern to those who live outside the tram tracks. Post the 2009 shocking bushfires we had the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Recommendation 56 of that royal commission was that there be a rolling target of 5 per cent every year in terms of fuel reduction, whether it be prescribed burning or mechanical treatment. It was actually a minimum of 5 per cent. Other expert fire specialists are calling for even higher than that, and indeed over my period of time in this place we have come to know that Indigenous firestick cool burns can also be complementary to and work in with those fuel reduction burns. It is my vision for the future that we can actually incorporate all of those very positive things, not only healing country but also reducing fuel load, to protect life, property and indeed our forests and the species that live within them.

In 2015 the Labor government at the time ignored that and went for the Safer Together policy, which is actually a bit of a disaster. The resulting fuel load reduction – and again, prescribed burning or mechanical treatment – since then has been on average in 1.5 per cent of the forest each year, well below the 5 per cent, and the 8 per cent wanted by the experts. During the last bushfires in 2019–20 – horrific bushfires – 1.6 hectares burnt, including our beautiful native forests and flora and fauna, and almost 400 houses and, very tragically, five lives were lost.

Under Labor’s residual risk policy, the risk that bushfires will impact on life and property is still real. Indeed to explain the Safer Together policy is a bit of an enigma, but a 70 per cent residual risk is the target, and that means that the Victorian government delivers on average a 30 per cent reduction relative to a forest with absolutely no bushfire mitigation whatsoever. They are saying that this70 per cent residual risk is far too high. Unfortunately in my patch, in the area in which I live – and I am not specifically worried about myself – the Latrobe district, which covers off Baw Baw shire, Latrobe City, Bass Coast, South Gippsland and a bit of Wellington, has a residual risk, currently sitting at, for 2022 because that is the last reporting period, 84 per cent.

Today we had a session – and I thank the Minister for Emergency Services – a briefing on the forthcoming season with Emergency Management Victoria, CFA, FRV, Forest Fire Management Victoria and VICSES. One of the quotes in that was, ‘We are ready this year.’ Well, I and many of my constituents actually feel that we are not ready this year. There is a serious concern that with these big fuel loads and a dry summer we are going to have significant fires, and there are many things that could and should be done. One of them is – and I thank Forest Fire Management Victoria for speaking to us this afternoon about the machinery and having people able to use that. Part of that is that the native timber harvesters have been cruelly shut down by this government seven years early – we would not have shut it down at all – and are finishing at the end of this year. But there are bulldozer, excavator and transport operators.

These people are indeed, unfortunately, a vulnerable species, soon to be on the extinct list, and they are very, very valuable indeed. I am concerned, as are many of the people in my electorate, that we are not ready this year, and the government needs to act on fuel reduction.