A former politician and tourism operator who works primarily in Kosciuszko National Park has reflected on the Black Summer bushfires 12 months on, calling for locally-led land management and firefighting operations moving forward, with a focus on prevention rather than cure.
Peter Cochran from Adaminaby was the National Party member for Monaro from 1988 to 1998, and now runs a horse trek business in the Snowy Mountains which takes participants through the KNP.
Having been witness to the park’s recovery over the past year since the Dunns Road fire tore through, Mr Cochran predicts that it “may take 100 years or more” for the most severely impacted areas to recover.
“Those areas which were very burnt are simply not recovering,” he said.
“The most severe areas, particularly on the western faces of the mountains where the fire was most intense, has totally destroyed vast areas of the vegetation and the entire wildlife in those areas.”
In recent years Mr Cochran has been a vocal advocate for wild horses in the High Country, opposing legislation seeking to remove them from the park and lobbying for their protection.
After the fires, National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) implemented an interim post-fire removal operation of wild horses from the northern end of the KNP. The Minister said the action was necessary because the fire impact on the KNP would be exacerbated by the effect of wild horses.
Mr Cochran disagrees, and is critical of land management in the park, particularly in regards to reducing fuel loads.
“There are other areas where the brumbies are, where the fuel levels were kept down – particularly the northern end of the park – where there is minimal damage,” Mr Cochran said.
“There’s a message there for park managers and those responsible for managing bushfire in this country, and it’s all about fuel levels.
“If they ever needed a clear message in regards to the future management of this park, they need to look at the effect of minimising fuel levels and the consequence for wildlife.
“Keep the fuel levels down and you save the wildlife.”
The former politician said that when discussing fuel reduction, hazard reduction burning shouldn’t be seen as the only option.
“The passive ways of reducing fuel levels such as grazing, firewood removal, there’s ways that fire bays can be constructed so that burns can take place to reduce that impact on western slopes which has not been occurring,” he said.
Mr Cochran argues that all public land managers – not just NPWS but also Forestry and Crown Land – need to monitor fuel levels closely moving forward from last year’s fire disaster.
“They need to spend more time actually monitoring the fuel and managing it on an annual or bi-annual basis not a ten-year cycle, and take advantage of wind conditions for fire and take advantage of drought conditions where livestock can be put into the park to reduce fuel levels during times of drought,” he said.
When the Dunns Road fire first began threatening the park and eventually reached it, Mr Cochran said he wasn’t surprised. He called the fires a “catastrophe waiting to happen”, and in line with the Dunns Road fire anniversary, has been posting videos to social media in a campaign to “try and revive the issue”.
One such video recorded pre-fire shows a pile of alpine ash, fallen trees and burnt trees still standing from the 2003 Australian Alps fires, which ended up being incinerated in the 2020 fires.
“There’s a total prohibition of logging in National Parks at the moment which is bizarre because those areas of alpine ash which could have been logged over the last 50 years, have now been burnt to a cinder for the second time in 17 years which will, in some areas, extinguish the species,” Mr Cochran said.
“Those areas where there is alpine ash and other timber – in other words, other timber that could be utilised for construction or for commercial purposes – they should allow foresters back in there to thin the forests and reduce the fuel level in the forest with practical management.”
Mr Cochran argues that the science used to guide land management in the KNP has been “corrupted by politics”, and would like to see a more locally-led approach to both management and firefighting operations.
He said that we are too-often seeing fires managed “from the top” by the Rural Fire Service and NPWS.
“In other words, they’re imposing management strategies on the firefighters, particularly the locals, which does not match the conditions because locals have a better understanding of local conditions,” Mr Cochran said.
“In the event of a fire catastrophe such as the one we’ve just had, they have instant management teams imposed on locals. These people quite often come from Sydney or other places and they have no understanding of the bush, the wind, the vegetation and the conditions they’re going to face.
“They don’t know the localities, they don’t know the local resources, and they underutilised many of the local resources because they simply don’t know what’s available.”
As a politician, Mr Cochran chaired the 1994 parliamentary inquiry into the fires in Sydney. When asked about the recent Royal Commission and State Inquiry into the 2019-20 bushfires, he said he has “no faith in them whatsoever.”
“The  report still sits on the shelf somewhere in Sydney, and I have seen so many reports and royal commissions into bushfires over the last 50 years that I have no faith in them whatsoever because they’re asking the wrong people the wrong questions,” Mr Cochran said.
“Talking to the bureaucracy of the paid firefighters about these issues is a waste of space.
“They should be talking to the locals who actually fight the fires, not the paid fire officers.”
Moving forward, Mr Cochran believes there needs to be a greater focus on fire prevention strategies.
“Fire mitigation is the word that needs to be introduced into the whole strategy, prevention is better than cure,” he said.
Specifically, Mr Cochran hopes to see a focus on preserving what is left after the fires and using it to help revive the most damaged areas.
“They need to do an overall assessment of damage that’s occurred there now and manage those areas which weren’t burnt for a start, so they can use the wildlife and vegetation that’s there to rehabilitate the rest of the park,” he said.