Bushfire Risk and Fuel Loads

Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (17:25:54): I would like to make a few comments this afternoon in terms of the 2019–20 Victorian budget and to speak to the management of bushfire risk. I will specifically go to the point in relation to Safer Together and the impact of bushfires on Victorian communities, the economy and the environment. My topic today relates to the vegetation management officers. I would like to drill down into their role, my concerns in relation to this year’s budget and the ongoing issue that Fire Rescue Victoria could potentially have in relation to these fantastic officers. We know that over the last summer, January through to March, we saw multiple fires rage across specifically Gippsland but also other parts of Victoria. We also know that the fuel loads continue to build up across our state, which is one of the most fire-prone places in the world. We also know that planned burns can be a very effective mechanism for the protection of our communities in these high-bushfire risk areas. Indeed there is much concern. I have spoken only recently to a very noble and knowledgeable gentleman in the form of David Packham, who raised that very issue that the fuel loads in country Victoria are startling. We also see the importance of preparatory burns. Recently I had the pleasure—I will say the pleasure; it was very much a pleasure—to meet a constituent in Yinnar South and to understand that his house was saved in the Yinnar South fires primarily because he went against council regulations and actually cleared the land around his home. You can see where the fire burnt through from the Morwell state forest and stopped on his boundary because there was low to no undergrowth. Operational effectiveness can occur through these preparatory burns, and this is where the key role of the vegetation management officers comes in. I have met many of them, and they are very much specialists. They often have local knowledge of the area and have worked in the industry for a long time. Speaking with some of them they have concerns, and I now do as well, around how the introduction of Fire Rescue Victoria will play out in terms of their future role: will they turn into an administrative role and not be classified as the technical specialists they currently are? They are also concerned that those roles will not be filled by local specialists with decades of current knowledge but by existing fire officers, as one of them related to me, in urban Melbourne fire stations. These are their valued and genuine concerns. Our vegetation management officers came about through the royal commission back in 2009 in relation to being that particular specialised and skilled area. Having that knowledge and working with Parks Victoria, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and the local CFA members, both career and volunteer, means they do play a very important role. I want to put on record some of the areas of their specialised technicalities. They coordinate and they provide leadership across different tenures and fuel management treatments across the landscape. They lead CFA representation in the development and coordination of the identified fire and emergency management industry. They create good partnerships in relation to understanding when and where and how is the right time to burn. They provide technical expertise, and also one of their key factors is training—training within the community and within our local CFA’s. For this particular reason it is so important that this government ensures that the community will continue to be as safe as it possibly can be, particularly in my patch of Gippsland, and also ensures that the existing vegetation management officers will stay in their commander roles rather than be turned into far less of an authoritative role and far less of a communication role within the community. I challenge the government, I ask the government, to ensure that this specialised role is supported and not replaced by some jobs-for-the-boys arrangement into the future. It is imperative for the safety and security of people across the state and specifically in Gippsland, which has that very high fuel load.