FIREFIGHTERS at last year's Budj Bim bushfire used a "low-impact strategy" to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage while fighting the blaze in a challenging terrain, the Country Fire Authority has revealed.
Rather than use bulldozers to create tracks or firebreaks, authorities relied heavily on aircraft and created control lines using hose lays, fire retardant and burning on existing tracks.
But decision makers also say they did not prioritise protecting the UNESCO world heritage landscape above protecting communities, emergency service personnel and infrastructure.
Now, on the first anniversary of the fire, the CFA has praised the foresight of local authorities and Indigenous groups, who met months before the fire to develop a plan.
The meeting took place after the site received UNESCO world heritage status in July 2019.
"This consultation enlightened incident management personnel of the rich cultural values and firefighting limitations to ensure effective strategies could be planned prior to any potential fire event," the CFA said.
The CFA said the "low impact firefighting strategy revolved around limiting ground disturbance" and required "consistent communication" with an incident management team in partnership with traditional owners.
Jagged rocks could puncture vehicle tyres and traditional firefighting methods could risk damaging the cultural heritage.Country Fire Authority
"Jagged rocks could puncture vehicle tyres and traditional firefighting methods could risk damaging the cultural heritage," a statement said.
The heritage sites include the world's oldest aquaculture systems, which Indigenous people used 6600 years ago.
New technology has found the aquaculture system even more extensive than previously thought, with further lost sites identified in 2020.
CFA District Five assistant chief fire officer Richard Bourke told The Standard the decision not to bulldoze new tracks to fight the fire was mostly due to the difficulty of the terrain, but was "in unison" with the decision to protect cultural heritage sites.
"In a normal fire fight you can go and create a track against the edge of the fire. You can't just go and do that in a landscape of volcanic rock," Mr Bourke said.
"We don't want to go putting in tracks where we are unfamiliar with the detail for that particular part of the landscape. That decision was in unison (with cultural heritage protection)."
But Mr Bourke said during the fire fight "the most important thing was life" of residents and firefighters, followed by warning communities of risks, protecting infrastructure, residences, commercial operations and the environment.
"(That) doesn't mean to say we can't achieve the high property items while successfully defending or protecting other priority items. In this case that was what happened in Budj Bim," he said.
Bessiebelle was told to evacuate when conditions such as high winds posed risks during the fire.
"There were periods of time during that fight where the risk was very high," Mr Bourke said.
Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation's Denis Rose said when authorities met in mid-2019 they agreed to use alternatives to bulldozers to fight fires at the site.
"Earth moving machinery shouldn't be used on the lava flow unless it's a matter of protecting life," Mr Rose told The Standard.
"The message has gotten through there are other ways to protect these precious cultural values of the World Heritage site. There has to be alternative thinking.
"The use of alternative methods for fire suppression were much appreciated, and it proved that it worked. The fire line that they built with fire retardant, with hose lines, and boots on the ground, it held pretty well."
Mr Rose said Indigenous land managers were now better prepared for fire on Aboriginal land to the west of the Budj Bim National Park.
"Like many landowners, we were probably under prepared for fire, it has woken us up to protect our fire preparedness and fire management," he said.
Mr Bourke said another challenge last summer was further resources were unavailable due to fires burning at the same time on Australia's east coast, later known as the "black summer bushfires".
He said the "vast majority" of the more than 800 emergency service personnel fighting the Budj Bim blaze were "local resources".
"If there weren't fires in the east we would have had much more resources. However we just had to make do with what we had," Mr Bourke said.
Mr Bourke said he shared views of other firefighters at the time that fuel loads in the national park and surrounds were too high prior to the fire.
"There was a large amount of unburnt fuel," he said.
"Periodic strategic burning could be an option to help manage the fuel loads in the area."
The last large-scale strategic burn was done in the park's south in 2014, preceded by a 650-hectare burn at the south-west corner in 2012.
Mr Bourke said fuel loads were now down due to last summer's fire.
"I have been through there, a lot of fuel has been reduced," he said.
Campers raised concerns about overgrowth at the park late last year.
Fire Forest Management Victoria district manager Mark Mellington said fuel management was done "year-round in partnership with other agencies".
"The park's network of fire access tracks play an important role in our fuel management program and they are maintained regularly. The tracks create breaks in the landscape that support backburning operations in the event of a bushfire." he said.
"We're always looking to improve how things are done and have adopted new ways of managing fuel loads in the park due to its unique rocky landscape, where more traditional methods are not effective and could damage the amazing cultural heritage sites."
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