Australian Forest Products Assn. welcomes Victoria's investment in removing bushfire fuel from 5% of public land, but CEO says focus on prescribed burns ignores opportunity to mechanically remove excess trees, use material to replace fossil fuels

DEAKIN WEST, Australia , April 30, 2014 (press release) – The recent announcement by the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries that it is actively implementing a target of removing fuel from five per cent of public land is strongly welcomed by the forest industry. The five percent target was recommended by the 2009 Bushfire Royal Commission as the level of fuel removal needed to obtain a noticeable reduction in risk levels.

‘For too long, we have watched as large bushfires have destroyed homes and wreaked havoc in rural communities and bushland close to our major capital cities’, said AFPA CEO Ross Hampton.

‘The use of prescribed fire to reduce fuel loads and minimise bushfire risks is to be commended, but we continue to ignore another major opportunity to make our communities safer. What of the option of using “light touch” mechanical operations to remove excess trees and undergrowth and put that material to some use? In combination with prescribed burning this could get us more quickly to the five percent target and also provide another environmental benefit as the material could be used for a range of purposes such as replacing fossil fuel power. Mechanical removal of fuel load reduces the amount of smoke which impacts on health and, of course, can be undertaken on most days – not just when the weather is suitable for prescribed burning.’

AFPA recently commissioned a scoping study by Deloitte Access Economics (DAE) into the economics of such ‘mechanical fuel removal’. The DAE report found that removing fuel from the bush, in combination with prescribed burning, could dramatically reduce the devastation caused by bushfires and save the community tens of millions of dollars each year.

The DAE report suggests that, for example, in the Blue Mountains area to the west of Sydney, removing fuel from as little as five per cent of the area each year could half the extent of bushfires and save the community as much as $34 million per year in insurance claims, property loss and fire-fighting costs.

Mr Hampton said, ‘In the United States there has been some real progress in implementing approaches whereby forestry contractors remove excess trees and fuels in accordance with management guidelines.’

The DAE study identified a number of areas where a full cost benefit analysis would better inform bushfire policy, including the Melbourne fringe and Gippsland regions in Victoria, south-west WA, the Blue Mountains, the Pilliga and north and south coastal areas of NSW, and Tasmania.

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