MIKE Baker was worried sick. After having almost all of his 9000-hectare property, Chess Park, badly burnt by three separate bushfires in 2011, the Eidsvold cattle producer wanted to protect his recently purchased asset from similar future natural disasters.
Mr Baker’s first response was to contact the Queensland Government, ultimately writing to more than 30 public servants to determine what he could and couldn’t do to construct effective firebreaks in his heavily timbered country.
To his surprise and frustration the responses varied wildly with suggestions from anything as little as 1.5 metres through to 10m, 20m, 30m and even 1.5 times the height of the tallest tree.
However, hit with a fourth fire in 2012 and worn down by a seemingly indecisive bureaucracy that appeared to have little compassion for his grazing country or the personal safety of the people working on Chess Park, the cattle producer continued the construction of a series of firebreaks late that same year designed to stop any future fires spreading.
While there have been no more wild fires on Chess Park since the series of 100km of firebreak networks were constructed, Mr Baker is now in the Magistrates Court charged with eight breaches of the Forestry Act and 38 breaches of the Vegetation Management Act (VMA).
Central to the case is the width of the firebreaks Mr Baker created.
Those breaks generally range in width from 20-40m but are up to 100m in heavily timbered and inaccessible country. About 35km of the breaks are on the boundary of the adjoining Dyngie State Forest.
Although the issue was first investigated by the Department of Natural Resources in 2011, a stop work notice was not issued until late 2014.
Mr Baker’s lawyer Tom Marland of Marland Law said the charges were being vigorously defended.
“Mr Baker is even being prosecuted for creating fire breaks 20m wide,” Mr Marland said.
“That’s only half the width of the 40m easement that coal seam gas company QGC was allowed to clear across Chess Park.
“Some of the charges related to areas amounting to about 400 square metres.”
Mr Marland said DNRM fact sheets said the width of the firebreak is related to terrain, vegetation type and local capacity to fight fires. Firebreaks may also be wider in areas that have large properties, few people and no fire brigade, he said.
“The Act also allows for the clearing necessary to remove or reduce the imminent risk that the vegetation poses of serious personal injury or damage to infrastructure,” he said.
Mr Marland said prior to starting work, Mr Baker consulted a fire expert and wrote to DNRM advising of his intention to implement a fire break systems through his property.
“DNRM advised him it had no budget to clear a firebreak along his boundary with Dyngie State Forest and responded by offering to clear and fence that boundary for free,” Mr Marland said.
“They allowed him to do this, but say he could only clear a firebreak 4.5m or 5m wide. That’s not even wide enough to turn around a four-wheel-drive, let alone a firetruck. A 5m break is practically useless as the trees next to it are up to 40m tall. If there is a fire and a burning tree falls across break the fire will just keep going.”
Mr Marland said it was recently disclosed by Crown Law that the department had spent a staggering $750,000 in legal and investigation costs before the trial had started.
“Given the trial is set down for 15 days it is not inconceivable that the costs of prosecution will eclipse $1 million,” Mr Marland said.
“This number is of course outrageous, but worse when it is considered that Mr Baker offered to construct firebreaks and maintain boundary fencing between his freehold land and the State forest at his own cost.”
Mr Marland said given the stop work order issued in 2014 and threat of further fines and harassment, Mr Baker has not undertaken any maintenance of fire lines since 2013.
“His life and property is now at the mercy of the upcoming fire season as are the lives and property of his neighbours if a fire goes through Chess Park,” Mr Marland said.
“If this happens, who is responsible?
“This bureaucratic approach to the reality of bushfire prone and affected areas is precisely the type of conduct that has led to disaster and death in other states.”
Marland Law also instructed Phillip Sheridan to assist in Mr Baker’s defence. Mr Sheridan has been involved in several pivotal tree clearing defenses in the past 15 years.