Locals say the fire threat in Barmah National Park has never been worse, and they'll hold authorities responsible if a blaze causes the catastophe they predict.By Cathy Walker
Peter Newman has lived near Barmah forest all his 53 years. He says he’s never woken in the night worrying about fire until lately.
‘‘I’m captain of the local CFA with 18 houses to look after and a fuel load in the forest like we’ve never seen before. How do I decide which one to save and which 17 to let burn?’’ Mr Newman said.
‘‘It’s just a matter of time: I’m sad to say, people are going to lose their lives.’’
He was speaking last Friday after his Barmah Forest Preservation league served notice to representatives of DSE, Parks Victoria and the Victorian Government that it holds them responsible for any loss of life or property in the event of a catastrophic fire, due to their failure to manage the fuel load and maintain firefighting access to the now-national park.
Mr Newman spent an hour driving DSE’s chief fire officer Alan Goodwin and north-east Victoria fire officer in charge Peter Farrell, Parks Victoria regional director Craig Stubbings and State Member for Rodney Paul Weller around the park.
He pointed out overgrown firetracks and what he said were formerly cambered access roads, many ungraded or covered with fallen timber.
Max Moor, who has forest on three sides of his farm, said when Environment Minister Gavin Jennings declared the forest a national park in 2010 it must have been April Fool’s Day.
‘Park management’ he said, was a misnomer.
‘‘We’re asking for more than looking, Paul,’’ Mr Moor called to Mr Weller.
‘‘Asking these chaps to come and have a look isn’t going to stop a fire.’’
Tim Manion — who said a Tim Manion had paid rates in the area since 1880 — is a retired farmer of ‘‘wheat, sheep or anything you could make a bob out of in this dry country’’. He said in terms of fire risk ‘‘it’s never been as bad as this’’.
Mr Stubbings said he was happy to receive the group’s complaints but stopped short of promising to address them, noting that some tracks ‘‘are not leading to key destinations’’ but agreeing that ‘‘we need to have strategic management’’.
Mr Goodwin said he was slightly disappointed the meeting with the league had taken place in public in that way, and began by talking about ‘‘joint obligation’’.
‘‘I’m not sure we can meet the expectations that you have,’’ Mr Goodwin said, pointing out we live in one of the most fire-prone areas in the country.
Later he said: ‘‘I’m serious about this. As chief fire office for DSE I am genuinely interested and certainly have a responsibility to get it better.’’
A retired timber-cutter from Numurkah, Graeme Barwick, said the fire danger and lack of grading in the tracks brought him to the Darlow’s Lane entrance to Barmah National Park on Friday to support the league’s cause.
He pointed to an overgrown track and a big log that had been removed from its path just so Mr Newman could begin his discovery tour.
‘‘Before parks took over, these tracks have been graded, to the best of my knowledge, every year for 30 years,’’ Mr Barwick said.
In an almost comedic moment, while Mr Newman read the league’s complaint letter aloud, a large red four-wheel drive and camper trailer — including a dog, now illegal in national parks — threaded its way through the group, bound for a campsite.
Mr Newman said later: ‘‘I felt like stopping him and saying, ‘Don’t go there pal, it’s too dangerous’.’’
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