How wide can a fire-break be in Queensland?
Getting the answer wrong, despite receiving conflicting advice from several different Queensland Government staff, has just resulted in a Queensland landowner being forced to pay $999,780 in fines and costs.
That figure – a record since Queensland’s Vegetation Management Act came into effect in 1999 – incorporates a $276,000 fine and an order to pay the Government $723, 780 in costs.
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In the wake of the severe punishment, which has left the landowner devastated according to his legal team, landowners seeking to undertake future clearing works in areas containing native vegetation, even if for a firebreak, fenceline or road, are being urged to urgently seek legal advice before starting.
Michael Vincent Baker of Chess Park, Eidsvold, was this week found guilty in the Brisbane Magistrate Court of the unauthorised clearing of 367.5 hectares of native vegetation.
Mr Baker was found guilty of 39 charges under the Vegetation Management Act and 7 charges under the Forestry Act relating to the width of clearing associated with firebreaks, fence lines and access tracks on his property, and also failing to comply with the self-assessable code for Native Forest Practice.
Magistrate Elizabeth Hall of the Brisbane Magistrates Court fined Mr Baker $276,000 for the 46 offences under the Vegetation and Forestry Act.
She also ordered restitution for loss of forestry products of $17,471.
In addition, she ordered Mr Baker to pay $165,000 and $541,309.15 of costs incurred by the Department in investigating and prosecuting him.
The total costs incurred by the Queensland Government in pursuing this prosecution, as disclosed to the court, were $2.2 million.
Mr Baker’s lawyer Tom Marland from Marland Law, Roma, said Mr Baker has previously filed an appeal to the District Court based on Magistrate Hall’s decision and will appeal the costs and sentence imposed as part of those appeal proceedings.
Lack of clarity over allowable fire-break widths:
Mr Marland has previously indicated that before Mr Baker commenced the clearing in question, he contacted 32 different Government employees seeking advice on the acceptable width of fire breaks.
He said he received conflicting advice ranging from 1.5 metres wide to “1.5 times the height of the tallest tree”.
The Vegetation Management Act (VMA) provided an exemption for clearing remnant vegetation if the clearing was to establish a fire break, and provided the break was “no more than 20 metres wide or 1.5 times the height of the nearest vegetation”.
The Act also allowed for “the clearing necessary” to remove or reduce the imminent risk that the vegetation poses of serious personal injury or damage to infrastructure.
Mr Baker was motivated to construct effective fire breaks because his 9242 hectare property Chess Park was almost totally burnt out by bushfire soon after he bought the property in May 2011.
The fires caused $300,000 worth of damage to property infrastructure. After that event, Mr Baker was determined to construct fire breaks to protect his family, property and livestock from future fires.
He said Mr Baker applied the advice of “1.5 times the tallest tree” in determining the width of his fire breaks – narrower firebreaks would provide no protection if a burning tree fell across the break and continued the fire on the other side.
With trees measuring between 18 and 32 metres, an average of 25 metres was applied, resulting in fire break widths of 40 metres.
Mr Baker advised the Department of his plan and his intention to commence the work.
However, some two years after the work began, he was advised by the Department that his fire breaks were too wide, and legal action followed.
The result was Magistrate Hall’s decision in the Brisbane Magistrate’s Court this week.
Department of Natural Resources and Mines statement:
This is the full media statement released by the Department of Natural Resources and Mines this morning:
Huge fine for illegal vegetation clearing
23 March 2017
A Queensland landowner has been required to pay nearly $1 million for illegally clearing native remnant vegetation at a property near Eidsvold in the North Burnett region.
Department of Natural Resources and Mines Director-General James Purtill said Mr Michael Vincent Baker had been found guilty of a total of 46 offences and ordered by the Brisbane Magistrates Court on Monday to pay $999,780, including costs.
“The fine handed down reflects the significant extent of the illegal clearing and Mr Baker’s deliberate actions despite direct warnings given to him by the department,” Mr Purtill said.
“Mr Baker contacted the department in 2011 to seek advice about managing vegetation on his property, but continued to illegally clear vegetation without a permit despite being given clear information about his responsibilities.
“Mr Baker cleared more than 350 hectares of native vegetation between May 2011 and March 2014 and was found guilty of 39 offences under the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 and seven offences under the Forestry Act 1959.
“Queensland strikes a balance between enabling landowners to get on with managing their businesses by sensibly clearing appropriate vegetation, and protecting our environment.
“Our self-assessable codes enable landholders to undertake a range of vegetation management activities without needing to apply for a permit, but the rules are in place to protect valuable ecosystems and reduce sediment run-off.
“The department is committed to working with landholders to help them understand their responsibilities.
“In addition to on-ground inspections, the department uses satellite technology to quickly detect changes in vegetation cover across Queensland, enabling us to make early contact with landholders if it appears they’re doing the wrong thing.
“This ensures we can contact landholders before inappropriate clearing becomes widespread, but it is important that landholders work with us and abide by the rules in place,” Mr Purtill said.
For further information contact Department of Natural Resources and Mines Media Services firstname.lastname@example.org
More questions of interest:
How wide can a fire break in Queensland actually be – does the NRM have a clear answer on this?
Beef Central has put that question to the NRM earlier today and was waiting for a response at the time of publishing this story. We will publish the NRM’s answer when it is received.
Did Mr Baker require a clearing permit? The NRM’s statement said Mr Baker “illegally cleared without a permit”. However, Mr Marland said Mr Baker did not require a permit as he was clearing under an exemption or self-assessable code.
The 367ha involved represents about 4 percent of the total property area of 9242ha. Was that all for fire breaks? Mr Marland said about 200ha was for fire breaks, about 100ha was for fence line maintenance and 50ha for native forest practice.
How much of the 9242ha property is marked as area that should not be cleared (or blue on his property map)? About 40pc of the total property area is marked blue for remnant. The 9242ha property comprises 8000 hectares of freehold, and also has 1029ha state forest in the middle and a former forestry entitlement area of 213 hectares that is now freehold. There is also a 40 metre wide, 9.3 kilometre long gas pipeline through the middle of the property.
The fine and costs order is the largest handed down since the Vegetation Management Act was enacted in 1999.
Mr Marland said the case and fine was significant when compared to similar prospection for the clearing of native vegetation.
A recent District Court of Appeal decision handed down on 21 April 2016, in relation to a St George grazier who cleared 1819 hectares of remnant vegetation, was originally fined $118,000 and ordered to pay $14,549 investigation costs and $9,274.03 in legal costs.
This was reduced on appeal to $40,000.
In an earlier 2011 District Court decision, in relation to a Wyandra grazier who cleared 1300 hectares, was originally fined $100,000, which was reduced to $30,000 on appeal.
Mr Marland said the decision has been “devastating” for Mr Baker.
“The matter is currently before appeal so I can’t make too much comment about the decision other than to say we are very disappointed” said Mr Marland.
“In relation to inaccurate media reports that Mr Baker was fined “$1 million”- the fine was $276,000 and the prosecutions legal and investigation costs were $706,309, which is three times the fine.”
The overall costs of the prosecution as disclosed to the court were $2.2 million.
“This matter is of significant importance, obviously for Mr Baker, but also all landholders throughout Queensland in relation to what they can and can’t do on their properties.
Anyone wanting to undertake clearing works in areas containing native vegetation, even if for a firebreak, fenceline or road, should seek legal advice prior to undertaking those works,” Mr Marland said.