Council tallies fire impacts, asks for fire break funding

The Dunns Road fire burned 45% of the Snowy Valleys LGA in just 50 days.

The Snowy Valleys Council has made their submission to the NSW Independent Inquiry into last summer’s horrific bushfires, tallying the local cost of the ‘mega’ fire, made up of the Dunns Road Fire and Greens Valley Fire which burned through 402,650 ha of the LGA over a 50-day period. 

The Independent Inquiry was commissioned by the state government to provide recommendations ahead of the next bushfire season. SVC said similar recommendations may also be provided to the Royal Commission as its work continues.

The fire started in a private plantation at Ellerslie, eventually burning 45% of the Snowy Valleys LGA, with the most severe economic impacts stemming from damage to the LGA’s pine plantations.

The plantations cover 14% of the LGA (125,000ha) and “has the largest socioeconomic presence of any softwood region in Australia,” according to the SVC’s submission. The plantations provide more than 5,375 jobs both directly and indirectly, contributing $2 billion annually to the local economy. 

Close to 42,500ha of plantation pine was lost during the fires, both public and private, with a total resource loss of $425 million.

In the submission, Council highlighted the different ways that fires act within softwood plantations and traditional rural environments, listing visibility and access as major factors which make it more difficult to fight a fire within a plantation. 

They also identified weed growth within the plantations as a “significant fuel source that exacerbated the intensity and spread” of the recent fires, which also presents a “considerable concern” for private landholders who border the plantations.

To prevent future fires, the council is calling for a review of current fire management practices and a change in legislation to create “fuel-reduce areas” and fire breaks around plantations, with ongoing monitoring of the fuels within and around those areas. They also propose working with landholders and the owners of other nearby assets to reduce fuel loads and ensure that both the assets and the plantations are “defendable” in future fires, with plans in place for fire management response.

The topic of fire breaks has long been raised by individual community members and community groups, with the Tumut Community Association making similar recommendations in their submission to the Royal Commission.

Addressing the need for hazard reduction, the council wrote that “controlled burning can be risky and resource intensive,” with limited timeframes for safe and effective burning.

“[It is] difficult to achieve in periods of drought and can temporarily have adverse effects on local communities, residents and visitors through reduced air quality and other impacts,” the report reads.

Across the Snowy Valleys, close to 66% of the LGA is made up of national parks, state forests and reserves. SVC writes that hazard reduction burning is “a key fire management strategy for managing fire risk on public land” and said the practice has “approximately doubled” across NSW over the past decade, compared to the decade from 2001-2009. They ask for the State and Federal Governments to commit to “fund a long-term program of prescribed burning”, focusing on “critical infrastructure, key assets and towns and villages”, working alongside other agencies and landholders.

SVC also asks that sites identified for hazard reduction burning are also considered in relation to how close they are to towns, critical infrastructure and other assets and that protection zones or buffers are established.