Vic emergency chief defends Wye River burn

A decision to approve a controlled burn days before a major bushfire destroyed 116 homes on Victoria’s surf coast was risky but appropriate, Victoria’s emergency management chief says.


Emergency management commissioner Craig Lapsley was responding to claims in Fairfax newspapers that the government has not admitted the role a Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning controlled burn may have played in the fire.

A lightning strike on December 19 in rugged forest country was the reported cause of the Wye River-Jamieson Track fire.

The Age says leaked confidential DELWP documents show officials ordered the burn three days later to control the half-hectare fire the strike caused, despite warnings it might have catastrophic consequences.

The operation involved dropping small fire bombs into inaccessible bush.

Extreme heat and high winds fanned the flames on Christmas Day.

The fire remains out of control in deep forest away from properties.

In a statement, Mr Lapsley said the decision to order the burn was deemed appropriate because fire danger days loomed and the fire could not be controlled.

“This option was discussed and approved at incident, regional and state control levels, which reflects the complexity and difficulty of having a deep-seated fire in a dry forest with excessive fuel loads with potential to increase fire intensity,” he said.

“This fuel had to be removed to reduce intensity and fire spread.”

The dry, inaccessible terrain made the operation “complex and challenging”, he said.

“The risks were understood, and it was judged it would be riskier not to undertake the back burn,” he said.

Communities were briefed about the strategy and the difficulty of controlling the fire, Mr Lapsley said.

The Christmas Day fire came from the area of the lightning strike, he said.

The state government has promised a thorough investigation by the state’s emergency management inspector-general.

DELWP was savagely criticised in an investigation to a controlled burn it set in state forest near Lancefield in early October, which ran out of control in extreme weather, burning four homes and destroying 3000 hectares.