As bushfire-affected communities begin to recoup after the devastation of the weekend, mounting complaints are surfacing about authorities inaction to forest management.
Garfield North resident Alex Exposito, who stayed to defend his home, said he was frustrated that he and his neighbours were not allowed to clear trees on their own properties.
“It was pretty thick around our properties,” Mr Exposito said.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of anger on that one,” neighbour Michael agreed.
“We tried to get rid of some of the trees but they wouldn’t let us.”
Winemaker Andrew Clarke, who watched his winery, gallery and home of 40 years burn in the Bunyip state park fire on Sunday, says he had asked authorities for years to do backburns.
“I honestly believe if they had done a lot more work as the (Black Saturday) royal commission recommended, this wouldn’t have been as disastrous,” he told Nine’s Today program.
Cardinia Shire Mayor Graeme Moore has hit back at the claims, arguing the weekend fires were an unstoppable ‘act of God.’
“Back burning is quite a dangerous thing to do as they can get away from you – a lot of bushfires start from back burning; where do you stop and start with this thing?
“At times like this everyone likes to point fingers, but I think it was God’s fault; lightning came started the fire and the wind came and blew it.
“I know council and other agencies are getting some bad press at the moment, but it’s really horrible and unfounded and unfair because a lot of people say they like the bush, but how safe can you make your property alongside it?
“Clearing doesn’t do all of that, native animals live in those trees and you have to protect their habitat. People are saying, ‘Well now the animals are dead and gone’, but no-one knows when there’s going to be fire there.”
Cr Moore said that while the weekend’s procedures will be reviewed, bush living and forest management is a difficult combination.“After something like this we have to debrief and assess what we can do from now on,” he said.
“We do choose to live in regions which are surrounded by trees. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like at my place or at a winery that didn’t have any trees or birds – the ambience of area would be horrible. So where do you draw the line?”
The Mayor lambasted the surging online negativity surrounding the weekend’s efforts.
“I’ve been belted from pillar to post and I can tell you it’s unfair, it’s unfair for the CFA who defended those properties, and all they do is get negativity back because they didn’t roll up to someone’s house.
“They hit this fire with that many resources – it was like the Avalon Airshow out there.”
Gembrook MP and Shadow Emergency Services Minister Brad Battin said a DELWP report reveals there has been a reduction in planned burning to minimise the risk of bushfires in areas such as Cardinia.
The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission found that ‘prescribed burning is one of the main tools for fire management on public land,’ however, the DELWP report reveals that the amount of planned burning in bushfire-prone areas such as Cardinia has dropped from 234,614 hectares in 2014-15 to only 64,978 hectares in 2017-18, a reduction of almost 75 per cent under the Andrews Labor Government.
“The 2009 royal commission was unequivocal about the importance of prescribed burning as ‘one of the main tools for fire management on public land,” Mr Battin said.
“That’s why it’s so important for the Andrews Labor Government to be upfront with regional Victorians about the true situation with prescribed burning.
“The Labor Government has failed to fully implement this recommendation from the Black Saturday Royal Commission and it’s putting Victorians in Cardinia at risk.”
Labor Bass MP, Jordan Crugnale, said a number of bushfire prevention measures have been implemented in Bunyip State Park over the past 10 years, including planned burns in 2008, 2012 and 2016.
“Our focus right now, and that of our firefighters, is on saving lives and containing the fires still burning,” Mr Crugnale said.
“As with any major fire incident, there will be a thorough review once the danger has passed.
“Planned burns are a critical part of Victoria’s bushfire management program, however they are just one aspect of a broader approach and must be carried out when weather conditions are suitable.”
Ms Crugnale said that while the Government does as much planned burning as possible when it is safe to do so, recent opportunities for scheduled planned burns in the Bunyip area have been limited “due to ongoing dry conditions.”
“Where weather conditions make planned burning too dangerous, other fire mitigation strategies are used, such as fuel break slashing, track/culvert maintenance and removing obstacles and hazardous trees.
“We’ve carried out around 45km of fuel break slashing in Bunyip State Park, including some earlier this year, made improvements to around 5 km of dangerous roads through mulching vegetation and removed obstacles and hazardous trees.
Planned burning across Victoria focuses on the areas of greatest risk, as per the recommendations from experts.
“In some areas, this may mean less planned burns – in other areas it may mean more – but communities can be assured that our activities are focused on making them safer and protecting their local environment.”
Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said CFA volunteers inspected over 293 properties on Wednesday 6 March and confirmed about nine houses had been destroyed and another damaged.
Those numbers are expected to grow.
Planned burning proves difficult, as Mr Crisp explained, “we have been doing planned burning, but with two years of record low rainfall the window for conducting those burns is very small.”
While the fire, which is now 24 times the size of Melbourne’s city centre, is still not yet under control, Cr Moore said council is shifting into recovery mode.
“What do we do from here? We rebuild and we relive. It’s going to take a few years, but we’ll get there.
“They could be battling this fire for weeks, even months. It’s like a child running in the bush; it doesn’t care, it goes wherever it wants to. That’s the nature of bushfires.
“Looking at Mount Cannibal, half the hill is all gone, and the rest is burnt and black. It destroys me when I think about it, and I’m gutted for my community. You’re my people. My neighbours. And I’m feeling your pain.”
The Mayor said skip bins will be established at the Bunyip Relief Centre for people to take their spoiled food from their fridges and freezers.