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Estimates: mechanical fuel load reduction trials

Estimates & Committees
Janet Rice 26 May 2015

Senator RICE: I want to talk about the mechanical fuel load reduction trials that were announced in the budget for Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia, where $1½ million has been allocated. Where exactly in each state will these mechanical fuel reduction trials be carried out?

Mr McNamara: At this stage, we have not actually determined which states they will be carried out in, although I note there has been interest from WA, Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland. So those details are yet to be worked through with the forest authorities in each of those states and with the forest fire management group.

Senator RICE: Have there been specific areas that have been proposed in those states?

Mr McNamara: There have been some areas mooted. But, as I say, the governance arrangements for that program have not yet been finalised and worked through.

Senator RICE: Can you tell me the areas that have been proposed?

Mr McNamara: There are areas in each of those states.

Senator RICE: Which areas?

Mr McNamara: I do not have them on me at the moment. Without actually having finalised the arrangements with the national partnership arrangements, I think it would be wrong of me to speculate about areas that might be included in that.

Senator RICE: Given that there has been money allocated, presumably there is some detail as to what is being proposed. Can you tell me some of the details of how these mechanical fuel reduction trials will be carried out?

Mr McNamara: I will turn to some of my notes here. Again, there was a report released by Deloitte on some work they had undertaken on mechanical fuel harvesting both in Canada and the US and the potential for that in Australia. At the moment, as I say, there has not been anything agreed as yet. But there will be fuel reduction trials in relevant state forest and local government lands and peri-urban and other high risk areas.

Senator RICE: You have allocated $1½ million based on that Deloitte report. That is the main basis for it, then?

Mr McNamara: It is probably worth providing some background on the full program, which is a bushfire mitigation program. So $15 million was allocated to the Attorney-General's Department. Attorney-General's had a range of discussions with all the states and fire management authorities and worked through a range of programs there. They have recently passed on responsibility for mechanical fuel load reduction trials to this agency. So we are very much in the embryonic stages of working through what those trials will look like.

Senator RICE: Have you done any more research to back up the basis for these trials other than what was in the Deloitte report?

Mr McNamara: No. I think this is what the trials are really about—to demonstrate whether or not this is a useful method for reducing fuel loads in Australia.

Senator RICE: So far—

Mr McNamara: So the trials are very much about testing what has been done in Canada and the US and seeing whether or not it is something useful to supplement the burning regimes that are taken in the winter months.

Senator RICE: So far you have not got any other research? Senator BACK: Are they talking about slashing? What is the mechanical means that is being proposed? I think that is what you are getting at,Senator Rice?

Senator RICE: Yes. Exactly. The details of what is being proposed.

Mr McNamara: As I say, those details are yet to be worked out.

Senator RICE: I find it astounding that you have allocated $1½ million when you have not got any details at all as to what is being proposed.

Senator Colbeck: I might stop you there. That is why it is regarded as a study and a mitigation project. I am aware that in the United States, for example, the intensity of harvest in areas close to populated areas has increased as a measure to mitigate against forest fires, for example. So, as Mr McNamara has said, we want to test some of those premises to see whether they might work as part of the broader bushfire mitigation strategies that we utilise in this country and whether they are effective or not. So we want to do some trials. It is as simple as that. We know that in the United States and Canada the mechanical removal of fuel load is one of the strategies that is being looked at to mitigate against bushfires, understanding the direct relationship between fuel load and fire intensity. So we are looking to see whether that might work for us here in Australia given some of the projections that we are seeing around the potential for bushfires and the problem that we already have with bushfires. So we see that as a sensible thing to trial. That is what the allocation of funding is for.

Senator RICE: Thank you. I want to clarify that at the moment your research is based on that US research and the report that Deloitte have done. You have not done further research for the basis of that $1½ million?

Senator Colbeck: This is research. This is a trial, so it is research. That is what we are undertaking.

Senator RICE: From what you know from the Deloitte report and from the US work that has been done, after the mechanical fuel load reductions, do you understand that there would be a need for one or more post logging burns in addition to the mechanical fuel reduction?

Mr McNamara: As I understand it, Senator, the mechanical fuel load reduction can be used as a supplementary tool to burning, where burning is not appropriate for a range of reasons. That could be air quality. It could be because there is a really important environmental asset close by or you are near a population centre. It can be used instead of burning.

Senator RICE: So you are looking at it in— Mr McNamara: So we are looking at all the options. That is what we will canvass in these trials, given the amount of money that we have for this.

CHAIR: We are actually going to knock off, if you do not mind.

Senator RICE: I have just one more question about that. So will you be looking at doing trials that include doing the mechanical fuel reduction and then a post logging burn in addition to that mechanical fuel reduction? 

Mr McNamara: The projects from different states are yet to come forward. I imagine that some of those projects will probably have a regime such as what you have just described. Senator Colbeck: Bear in mind that we will be looking at this in the context of very different forest types based on different parts of the country. So you would expect that a range of different options would come through as part of the projects being proposed by the states in this process.

Senator RICE: So you would expect that in some of these trials you would still have to burn after the mechanical fuel reduction?

Senator Colbeck: That may be the case. One thing that is obviously being considered is that the reduction in fuel load may lead to the opportunity for a cooler burn. You would understand quite well that that has a much lighter impact on the environment and all of the biodiversity that exists within it.

CHAIR: Thank you. 

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