Farmers’ hands tied by red tape in recent fires

Farmers’ hands tied by red tape in recent fires
February 21 2019

CANEGROWERS Mackay has described how Queensland regulations tied the hands of Mackay and Plane Creek cane farmers in trying to defend their properties and wildlife habitat in the recent bushfire disaster.

In a submission to the current enquiry by the federal Standing Committee on Agriculture and Water Resources, CANEGROWERS Mackay said that during the bushfires in November 2018, 1016 hectares of productive cane land at an estimated direct cost of nearly $1.4 million to the industry, was devastated by fire.

Farmers and firefighters felt hampered due to the grey areas in the interpretation and application of Queensland vegetation management legislation. Ironically, given the law’s conservation focus, this resulted in the destruction of significant wildlife habitat, the submission argued.

“Legislation must translate to practical, achievable actions on the ground in order to be effective,” said CANEGROWERS Mackay Chairman Kevin Borg.

“However, State vegetation management regulations have reduced cane farmers’ ability to prevent fuel loads building up on their own and adjacent properties, hampering their efforts to protect not only their own enterprises and family incomes but also, ironically, important wildlife habitat as well,” he said.

“In the recent catastrophic bushfires, areas where fire could be effectively controlled were the open, lightly timbered or cleared areas which vehicles and fire personnel could access easily and promptly. With less fuel burden from standing timber, the fire was at ground level rather than spreading from tree top to tree top.

“However, due to a lack of regular preventive action to lessen fuel loads – including in National Parks - the fire was much more intense. Moreover, in the heavily timbered areas, the high fuel load caused a massive loss of wildlife with animals such as koalas, birds and goannas unable to escape the fire’s intensity. Now, two months later, and with more than 300 mm of rain having fallen, some of these areas are still struggling to regenerate.”

Mr Borg said the CANEGROWERS Mackay submission recommended that clearing either side of fencing needed to be significantly increased because in extreme fire conditions the existing narrow firebreaks allowed under the regulations were nowhere near wide enough to prevent a fire from spreading.

“We would suggest a 100 – 125 metre clearing either side of a fence (200 – 250 metres in total) or, where the fence borders crops, a 250 metre set back on the timbered side of the fence.

“Hazard reduction burns should be allowed to be undertaken regularly under the regulations, and at the correct time of year. That includes burning off along road sides, roadways, reserves and along rail corridors, which is currently prohibited, in order to create effective firebreaks.”

A public hearing is being held today in Canberra as part of the enquiry.

Note to Editors: Fuel reduction (also known variously as prescribed, planned, controlled or hazard-reduction burning) is the targeted burning of bushland to control fire behaviour. To be effective fuel reduction needs to be applied frequently as fuel loads build up quickly. Back burning is a last resort measure to stop wildfire from burning out specific areas. It works by setting fires from containment lines, such as established or hastily constructed fire breaks made with a bulldozer or cut by hand. Buffer zones create firebreaks but need to be wide enough to prevent an intensive fire from spreading.