How our firefighters and parks management teams are preparing for the upcoming bushfire season has become clearer with the release of the 2023-24 Bushfire Operations Plan.
It comes off the back of pointed questions by the Canberra Liberals during the recent sitting week, culminating in a motion on Wednesday (2 November) calling for the government to fully commit to reinstating the Namadgi National Park fire trail network to pre-Orroral Valley Fire accessibility status and report to the Assembly on the progress of their restoration.
Yerrabi Liberals MLA James Milligan brought forward the motion, voicing concerns that fire trails in the area weren’t accessible ahead of summer.
“One of the key things [I heard] holding up the progress for fire trail renewal and maintenance was red tape,” he said.
“‘The bureaucratic wheels have slowed everything down’, was one of the comments I had received, meanwhile our fire trails are still needing repair and we have the potential for another disastrous fire season.”
Mr Milligan acknowledged the ACT has access to helicopters and air tankers to drop off rapid access teams in the event of a bushfire, but he argued this wasn’t enough.
“The deployment of remote area fire teams is only effective when completely complemented by having a robust, fit-for-purpose fire trail network across our landscape,” he said.
“One that provides access to rapid response for four-wheel bikes and heavy vehicles, including earth-moving dozers, as a means of fire containment.
“By the Minister’s [Mick Gentleman’s] own admission during Question Time last week, the ACT is not fire-ready, the trails do not meet the standards required.”
The Greens backed this call, altering Mr Milligan’s motion slightly to require reporting on the status of fire trails biannually rather than quarterly, which Labor also supported.
Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman acknowledged the community would be concerned about the Territory’s bushfire preparedness, explaining the management trail network is more than 2500 km long and continuously under maintenance.
He said that prior to the 2020 Orroral Valley Fire, trails had been managed in a “prioritised manner” that considered road purpose and condition, access and egress, localised conditions, risks and weather outlook.
However, the ACT Parks and Conservation Services (PCS) is currently completing a strategic review of the trail network’s management, looking at standards and classifications that consider topographical, construction and financial constraints alongside “best-practice suppression measures” and environmental factors.
“The strategic review has identified the continuing vulnerability of unsealed management trails to climate-change drive fire and weather events, despite previous and planned efforts to increase resilience,” Mr Gentleman said.
“The occurrence of sequential and cumulative climate change fire and weather-driven storm events is predicted to increase in the ACT, with impacts of management trails likely to result.”
In the meantime, Mr Gentleman said work was ramping up as the weather warmed.
“Network access is rapidly improving as the level of saturation across the landscape steadily reduces,” he said.
Mr Gentleman outlined work was proceeding in the Upper Cotter area leading to the Bimberi Wilderness, with access through the first damaged section completed earlier in the week, and all damaged sections in the catchment expected to be restored by the end of November.
“These repairs will allow plant and equipment access to install permanent, resilient creek crossings that can withstand flood events far more effectively than what was in place before the 2020 fires,” he said.
More extensive improvements on the Namadgi management trail were expected in 2024 and beyond using Commonwealth funding.
Work is also occurring on damaged sections of Cotter Hut Road, with access to repair sections higher up in the catchment – including Lick Hole Road, which provides access to firefighting water supply at Corin Dam – is expected this month.
The ACT Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD) releases the Bushfire Operations Plan each year, with the 2023-24 plan taking advantage of forecast drier weather from previous years to accelerate repair and maintenance of fire trails, as well as conducting hazard reduction burns and reducing fuel loads.
Mr Gentleman said the plan prioritised carrying out risk reduction activities across 13,415 hectares of the ACT and 560 km of the Territory’s management trails.
“Despite the significant challenges faced from extreme wet weather, saturated catchments and impacts to our fire trails, we achieved 84 per cent completion of the 2022-23 Bushfire Operations Plan,” he said.
“The government is well underway implementing this year’s activities by completing management trail repairs, training new staff, removing fuel by slashing and mowing and undertaking prescribed burns.
“Despite facing some significant challenges because of the extended wet weather over recent years which led to rapid vegetation growth and damage to the management trail network, the ACT Government is confident about the level of preparations for the summer ahead.”