History of Fire Management on Public Land in Victoria
By the end of the 19th century there was a gradual recognition that management of Victoria’s forests was needed. In 1851 the catastrophic 'Black Thursday' bushfires had set alight a quarter of Victoria. By the late 1890s there was major concern about the future of Victoria’s forests.
In 1897, a Royal Commission was set up to examine the colony’s forests and timber resources. The Commission concluded that successive governments had been warned about the need to reserve and protect the remaining forests and to introduce effective management. Fire protection was recognised as an important part of the proposed management.
The 1897 Royal Commission recognised that native forest vegetation in Victoria was adapted to survive repeated fires. Its response to fire protection was prophetic because it forecast the continuance of major bushfires. The Commission recommended a number of restrictions on the use of fire over summer months, that precautions be taken during forest operations over summer to prevent accidental fires occurring, and a hazard reduction program should be developed with penalties for non-compliance. Very few of these recommendations were implemented at the time.
A State Forests Department was established in 1907 and the formal management of Victoria's forests began. This management continues today through the Department of Sustainability and Environment.
Even in these early days it was recognised that protection of forests from wildfire should be an important objective of forest policy. At the time many fires were deliberately lit, mainly to clear land for agriculture. In it’s first annual report, the fledging government body noted that:
“Many people have no compunction in setting the forest ablaze, and who for small immediate gain, can watch without pang the immediate destruction in flame and smoke of the timber that might provide their sons with employment and wealth.”
By 1920, as it remains today, the basic problem was how to achieve enough public awareness that “wanton or grossly careless fire-raising shall become a thing of the past”. However, it took the death of 71 people, the destruction of entire townships and the razing of millions of hectares of forest and agricultural land in January 1939 before awareness of the need for fire protection became deeply etched in the psyche of Victorians.
The recommendations from the Royal Commission which was held following the 1939 fires did much to establish Victoria’s current fire protection arrangements.
Judge Stretton, who conducted the Royal Commission, noted in his report:
“That the major overriding cause, which comprises all others, is the indifference with which forest fires, as a menace to the interests of all, have been regarded. They have been considered to be matters of individual interest, for treatment by individuals”.
The Commissioner noted that there was a general apathy concerning fire protection and he was critical of the then Board of Works and the Forests Commission for their failure to act as effectively as possible to prevent the outbreak and spread of these fires. He repeatedly noted how hampered the Forests Commission was by the shortage of funds and staff.
Judge Stretton’s report recommended the establishment of a State Fire Authority to include bush and country fire brigades, the Forests Commission and local government representatives. Prior to this time funding of local volunteer brigades has occurred through the Forests Commission.
Another important recommendation was that for fire suppression and prevention, the Forests Commission should have complete control of all forests except where exemptions had been recommended. There were also recommendations concerning the early detection of fire, methods of firefighting and the protection of forests through a strategic program of burning selected areas of forest in a controlled way during spring and autumn.
It took time, but as a result of the Royal Commission recommendations, and later recommendations by Judge Stretton in 1944, the Forests Commission was given fire prevention and suppression responsibilities for Victoria’s public land and the Country Fire Authority was formed, with responsibilities for private property outside greater Melbourne.
Just one example of the changes since the 1939 fires is the enhanced network of roads and access tracks within the millions of hectares of public land. These allow firefighters and their equipment into the more remote areas of the state. Prior to the 1940s this was impossible in many locations.
Other improvements to fire protection and prevention in more recent years include enhanced communication, better equipment, improved detection methods and training, and the use of better meteorological information, as well as a range of targeted scientific research programs. Aircraft are now also a key component of park and forest fire management.