Protect the highway

Protect the highway

Orbost Chamber of Commerce recently met to discuss the importance of strategic bushfire fuel break along the Princes Highway between Nowa Nowa and the state’s border with New South Wales.

The Princes Highway is a major transport and supply route linking Victoria to south-east NSW and to Sydney and it provides access and egress for emergency services and communities during bushfires and other emergency events. It is also a major tourist route.

“Over many years the management of roadside vegetation along this section of the Princes Highway has been a major concern for the community, the transport industry, firefighters and other emergency services workers,” chamber secretary, Garry Squires, said.

“One of the priorities for any state, regional or municipal fire management plan is the maintenance of major transport routes prior, during and after fire. The Princes Highway between Nowa Nowa and the NSW border has been identified as a key route.” 

A report prepared by the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) in 2012 identified a number of issues along the road, including: long stretches with minimal verge; vegetation growing to the edge of the road and in some cases overhanging the road; understory and eucalypt regrowth which has been allowed to regrow and progressively creep towards the bitumen and hazardous trees close to the bitumen.

“The volume of vegetation and hazardous trees close to the bitumen had the added risk of potentially falling and seriously injuring members of the travelling public or firefighters and other emergency service personnel following fire or storm events,” Mr Squires said.

The section of road was identified as having had frequent closures for periods from a few hours to days. In the most recent fire event it was closed for almost five weeks.

“This is seen as an unacceptable impost on the transport industry and the local communities relying on the road for access,” Mr Squires said.

“For these reasons the requirement for a permanent fuel break along the length of highway has widely been acknowledged by emergency service workers and the community as a key project.

“The 2012 DSE report included a project plan for the ‘Princes Highway Fuel Break’, which included the removal of all vegetation on the original highway footprint and along each side of the road, removal of hazardous trees up to two tree lengths from the roadside and smoothing and forming of the cleared area for follow up slashing.”

The chamber agreed there were a number of safety issues along the highway which must be addressed.

“Where there are trees close to the road edge, when a tree falls over the road the trunk of the tree will be across the carriageway,” Mr Squires said.

“Not only does this block the road with no alternate bypass route available but there is a likelihood of a vehicle coming into contact with the tree – particularly at night.

“The tree can also fall across the vehicle as happened to a truck during the 2013 wind storm.” 

Mr Squires said if there is a cleared section on each side of the road of sufficient width then either the tree does not reach the carriageway or if it does it is only the head section of leaves and twigs rather than the trunk and the result of a car running into it is far less dramatic.

There are a number of safety aspects with respect to trees close to the edge of the road and the impact of wildfire on the road.

“While there are trees to the edge of the highway, the road is a death trap for any vehicle caught travelling along the highway when a fire impacts the road,” Mr Squires said.

“After the fire passes across the highway, the road is initially closed by falling debris and then it is deemed unsafe for the travelling public for an extended period as the authorities assess the danger posed by the burning trees and take the appropriate action to remove the danger.

“If there is a substantial clearing along the edge of the road, then when a fire impacts the road the number of trees impacting the pavement directly or deemed dangerous and likely to impact the pavement will be very limited and the road can be opened soon after the fire passes. Hence the impact of road closures on the transport industry and local communities will be minimised.”

Mr Squires said a wide cleared easement becomes a line which fire fighters can use as a control line for the fire so that it is does not cross the highway.

After the recent fires crossed the highway in multiple locations, there were many burning and dangerous trees along the edge of the highway. 

DELWP deployed a number of crews to clear the vegetation and make the highway safe to reopen. This operation took more than a month before the road was opened to all traffic.

The result of the fire control works and previous clearing operations is that there are many sections of the highway with roadside clearings of varying width and standards while there are still other sections which have trees growing to the edge of the road. 

“The advantages of a strategic fuel break along the Princes Highway from Nowa Nowa to the NSW border are: improved road safety; reduced occurrence and duration of road closures and hence less impacts on the transport industry, local communities and the travelling public; reduced risk of fire impacting and crossing the highway; improved safety for emergency service workers responding to events along the road and potential control line for firefighting operations or fuel reduction burning,” Mr Squires said.

The chamber agreed the creation of a strategic fuel break along the highway from Nowa Nowa to the NSW border should be recognised as a major strategic project for East Gippsland and that funds be allocated to complete the project.

IMAGE: The closeness of roadside vegetation along the Princes Highway between Nowa Nowa and the New South Wales border has become a major talking point after bushfires led to massive stretches of the highway being closed in January. Orbost Chamber of Commerce believes strategic fire breaks are vitally important to ensure the highway is not restricted in the event of an emergency to the extent it was last summer. (PS)