Clear the verges – Firefighter speaks out on fuel loads

Andrew Avent says we need to clear roadside verges from fenceline to fenceline where possible. He is pictured on the council-managed Dons Road at Newham where the fuel load is high.

Andrew Avent knows a thing or two about wildfire and has a controversial idea for rural roadside management across the Macedon Ranges.
The Newham resident, firefighter and air attack supervisor fought both the 2003 and 2015 ‘planned burns’ that escaped control in the Cobaws; the first from the ground and the second from the air.
He has witnessed the carnage when the fuel load on a roadside verge is so high it explodes.

“I’ve watched houses burn and I’ve saved a house within two minutes just this very season from roadside verge fuel loads,” he says.
“I was the air attack supervisor on the Cobaw fire in 2015 and I watched a house go on Three Chain Road that was set alight because embers got into the verge and the fuel loadings were so high that it just exploded and took the house out.
“I was sitting on top of it in an aircraft and watched it happen.
“That whole road there just lit up on the verge, but the grass wasn’t burning, it was still green.”

Mr Avent says that when the roads were built, the verges were a clearway and were never designed to be a tourist attraction with flora and fauna.
“What we really need to do is take what’s on the verges and plant it over the other side of the fence instead, and clear all the verges,” he says.
“If the verge is clear you’re reducing the fire risk, drivers can see animals more readily and there will be fewer accidents and injuries to people who panic and swerve when they see a roo and hit a tree.
“It’s the finer fuels that make a bigger fire, but if your grass is cut, there are no twigs and leaves and all the bark is cleared away, a quick ‘grassy’ is less likely to get hold in a big tree.”

Mr Avent acknowledges the significant cost of such a huge undertaking but suggests landowners could be asked to take responsibility for the verges along their fencelines.
“I don’t think, as a landowner myself, it’s unreasonable to say ‘we want to clean out the verges and make them a clearway again over time, but we want you, that equivalent distance, to now plant up in the front of your property’,” he says.
“We’re not losing the conservation values, we’re just moving them.
“Ten, 15 years ago, all of our shires in this state had what was called primary and secondary fire breaks.
“We used certain main roads to act as a fire break.
“That’s been thrown out the window because nothing can be compliant any more because the fuel loadings are so high it’s pointless.
“We need to treat the roadside verges from fenceline to fenceline where possible.”

Mr Avent is urging locals to read the council’s draft Roadside Conservation Management Plan and program of roadside slashing for fire mitigation, and also contribute feedback about the management of rural roadsides.
Submissions close on June 7. See the ‘have your say’ section on council’s website.