Fire breaks are getting bigger in NSW but experts say it's a big mistake

© Provided by ABC News Fire breaks in NSW can now be 25m wide under the new Rural Boundary Clearing Code. (ABC Rural: Cara Jeffery)

A new land-clearing code has been introduced by the NSW government designed to reduce the risk of bushfire.

The Nature Conservation Council is alarmed by the change and a researcher from the University of Sydney says there is no evidence to support it, but farmers say it is needed to protect farms and habitat for native animals. 

Landholders can now clear an extra 10 metres around their boundary to form a fire break.

Nature Conservation Council chief executive Chris Gambian said the move would devastate flora and fauna.

“You can clear 25 metres from your boundary line without getting an approval, you don’t have to do an ecological assessment, and the protection in the code for rare, threatened and vulnerable species is almost non-existent,” he said.

Bronwyn Petrie from NSW Farmers rejected the criticism and said bigger fire breaks were needed to ensure bushfires did not destroy properties and habitats for native species.

Bitter lessons from Black Summer fires

Bronwyn Petrie worked for months fighting Black Summer fires.

“We’ve got six properties, [and] we were affected by nine fires in six months,” she said.

“We saw devastation that we’d never seen before.”

Of the 10,000 hectares she owns about 8,000 were burnt, sometimes by fires that ignited in the crowns of trees.

“We were surrounded by high fuel loads and hampered by fire management  decisions and fires that could have been put out early [but] were allowed to run and became very intense in the heat of summer in January,” Ms Petrie said.

She had never seen crown fires in her area and believed the wider fire breaks were needed to counter them.

“When you have a crown fire … there’s nothing you can do to stop them, you need a break in the canopy,” she said.

Despite the changes to allow bigger fire breaks, Ms Petrie was still concerned that the code did not apply to National Parks and she felt there were too many constraints to using it. 

“You can’t clear where there’s a koala plan of management, you can’t clear in any of the critical ecological species, you can’t clear wetlands, you cannot clear rainforest,” she said.

Those restrictions meant that Ms Petrie could not clear one of her properties at all and she wanted the government to look at making it easier to put fire breaks in.

Nature Conservation Council opposed

Mr Gambian said the new Rural Boundary Clearing Code could result in thousands of hectares of previously protected bushland being cleared.

“Under the code, if neighbours took up their new rights, 50-metre-wide strips of clearing would occur across large parts of the state,” he said.

“The code could mean the difference between survival and extinction for koalas and other threatened species in some parts of the state.”

He wanted changes to the code to exclude areas of koala and other threatened species habitat, areas of Aboriginal and cultural heritage, and to limit its application to areas Rural Fire Service had identified as a serious risk.

No science to back the change, says Sydney University researcher

Associate Professor Mathew Crowther from the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences said the legislated changes were not based on science and were not recommended by any experts at any bushfire inquiry.

“There’s evidence that clearing in these types of areas will dramatically affect a lot of species of native flora and fauna,” Dr Crowther said.

The edges of farms were often the only areas that had not been cleared.

“That’s actually the remnants of that habitat, it’s where a lot of native vegetation remains and it’s vital habitat for threatened species,” Dr Crowther said.

He rejected the claim by NSW Farmers that bigger fire breaks were needed to stop these big fires because the loss of habitat outweighed that.

“If you clear everything, there’s nowhere [for native animals] to live and that’s the problem with these sorts of arguments.”

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