20 Feb 2010

Victoria still not prepared for fires - union

8:50 pm on 20 February 2010

The Royal Commission into the Black Saturday disaster has heard Victoria remains dangerously unprepared to tackle major bushfires.

Fires swept across the Australian state just over a year ago, killing 173 people.

The ABC reports the Australian Workers Union told the commission that the Victorian Government had broken a 2004 promise to boost the number of firefighters protecting public land.

The union represents field staff and firefighters employed by state government departments.

Victorian branch secretary Cesar Melham told the commission the state was "tragically unprepared" for another Black Saturday, with not enough firefighters to meet fuel reduction targets.

He said the number of firefighters had fallen dramatically since the 1980s and 1990s.

Lawyers acting for the Victorian Government did not challenge the union's claims.

Athol Hodgson, a forest fire expert and a former chief fire officer with the former Victorian Department of Conservation, said the state government had allowed fuel to accumulate to unnatural levels.

He said it became impossible during a period of drought to stop some fires, unless firefighters were standing beside them when they started.

"Those unnaturally high levels of fuel contributed significantly to the fact that people died in large numbers in a very short space of time."

The commission heard the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment currently burns less than 2% of Victorian forests to reduce fuels, despite its own corporate plan saying a desirable target is two to three times that.