Grazing ban fire risk fears

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The ban on grazing along the Yarra River has increased fears of a “high spark hazard”. Annabel Thomas reports.

A ban on grazing along the Yarra River has increased fears of a “high spark hazard”, according to the Country Fire Authority (CFA).

Macclesfield CRA captain Sharon Merritt said the Yellingbo Conservation Area is “one of the highest bushfire risk areas in Victoria”. According to Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), it accounts for 31 per cent of Victoria’s total bushfire risk area.

Ms Merritt said if the land is grazed to “short green grass”, there is a lower chance of bushfire than if grass is allowed to grow naturally.

In August 2011 the State Government requested an investigation into the newly created conservation area, 48 km east of Melbourne. Approximately 186 water frontage and grazing licenses will be progressively phased out by 2018 after those for sections of the river including lower Hoddles Creek were phased out in 2016.

According to DELWP project manager Victoria Purdue, stock access to waterways can harm water quality due to stock faeces and urine, causing “increased risk of disease” and “ecosystem damage.”

The Andrews Government announced changes to the plan early this year in rresponse to community concern over revegetation and the bushfire risk in the north east corner of the area, including the townships of Yarra Junction, Launching Place, Don Valley, Millgrove and Wesburn.

The changes include allowing revegetation only within 10 metres of each side of the waterway.

However, conservationists and scientists are concerned the 10-metre buffer will have a detrimental effect on the environment and fail to reduce the bushfire threat.

A 20-to-30 metre buffer has been recommended in the past, based on extensive research by the Department of Sustainability showing that the vegetation beside the waterways serves as wildlife habitat and contributes to stream health and water quality by filtering agricultural excess.

Studies show that rivers change their course when waterside vegetation is narrowed and a wider vegetation areas is needed to protect infrastructure and roads by limiting erosion.

Both the Leadbeater’s possum and helmeted honeyeater bird are endangered and are confined to the Yellingbo area.

The Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater group says it is concerned at “the future of our critically endangered Victorian bird emblem” and aims to protect its existing habitat by advocating the widening of the revegetation area.

The nature reserve has been exempt from the new rule but if a bushfire was to go through the reserve, it is likely the entire species will be wiped out.

The Yarra Waterways Group argues that widening the vegetation areas beside the river would further increase the bushfire risk and is unsafe for residents.

The CFA’s Sharon Merritt Merritt said she was concerned that the ban on grazing on local Crown Land could threaten nearby houses, increasing the fire danger on local properties and, in turn, the “likelihood of house loss”.

The CFA is working with authorities including DELWP, to help lessen the risk of bushfire. Ms Merritt said revegitation could help by reducing the speed, as fire travels slower through bush and scrub.

Ms Purdue said DELWP had consulted the local community and held “drop in sessions” in order to involve stakeholders and assist landowners as required.

Purdue said the department was creating a “bushfire management planning process,” led by the local community and supported by agencies and fire experts. She recognised landowners’ interest in the Crown land and “acknowledge the decades of hard work”. “Incorporating their knowledge in this planning is a priority,” she said.