Disaster inquiry confirms industry concerns over confusing VMA

AgForce has condemned the State Government for failing to heed long-held concerns about the Vegetation Management Act, after the Government’s own inquiry implicated the VMA in worsening last year’s tragic bushfires.

A review by the Inspector-General of Emergency Management (IGEM) found the overly bureaucratic, restrictive and confusing nature of the VMA hamstrung landowners in both preventing and managing bushfires, recommending that they be overhauled.

AgForce CEO Michael Guerin said the IGEM’s finding that the VMA exacerbated the fires that destroyed over 520,000 hectares of farmland and national park, killing thousands of wild animals and livestock, was “shocking but not surprising”.

“We have been warning the Government of the dangers of these ill-considered, ideologically-dogmatic laws for nearly two years,” Michael said.

“The 2018 bushfires proved that the VMA was impractical, if not impossible, from a landholder’s perspective, and prevented them from implementing effective fire prevention measures, such as adequate backburns and firebreaks.”

Mr Guerin endorsed the report’s recommendation that “legislation relating to vegetation management, bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction…be reassessed…to enable more appropriate and flexible means at the local level for the reduction of intense fires”.

“We applaud the IGEM for the thoroughness and honesty of his review and can only hope the Government reflects on and implements – not just ‘in-principle’ accepts – the recommendations,” he said.

“In particular, his conclusion that frequent and regular changes to the VMA over many years have left landowners confused as to what they can and cannot do to prevent fires without breaking the law is frightening.”

The report found “frustration and fear” pervaded conversations with landholders, including the fear of breaking the laws as they saw them.

It said: “One property owner in Central Highlands demonstrated his need to build a break larger than the legislated 10 metres along the fence line, because the breaks on adjacent state land were inadequate” but that “this approach, while highly practical and undoubtedly effective during these events, was technically in breach of legislation.”

However, Mr Guerin said the most concerning aspect of the review was that it didn’t assess the impact of the State Government’s own vegetation management practices.

“The Government’s failure to manage undergrowth and fuel loads in National Parks and State Forests – whether due to lack of resourcing or ideological design – undoubtedly contributed to the ferocity of the firs and the unusual difficulty in putting them out once they reached private land,” he said.

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