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Farmer Who Lost Everything In Bushfires Spent Years Begging State To Backburn

A farmer who lost his entire vineyard in the Victorian bushfires has slammed the state government for failing to help prevent the fires through backburning operations.

Andrew Clarke, who planted the first vines at the Jinks Creek Winery back in 1979, had his life's work destroyed by the Bunyip fire over the weekend.

He said he'd been asking the state government for large-scale backburning in the area for 20 years, but only small pockets of vegetation had been cleared in fire prevention measures.

"It's been tiny pockets, little bits and pieces, but nothing of the scale that was needed to stop the devastation of this fire," Clarke told 10 daily.

"I've been telling them for years this was going to happen, and no one listens.

"I've lost everything."

Photo: 10 News First.

Clarke is sure the recent bushfire -- sparked by lightning strikes last week -- was exacerbated by the dense bushland.

"The fire was so hot because of all the under-story in the forest," he said.

"They [the government] never managed it, but they're claiming they have. It's very frustrating for me."

READ MORE: Aussie Firefighter Loses Son, Back Battling Bushfire The Next Day

READ MORE: Entire Town 'All But Wiped Off The Map' By Bunyip Fire

Planned burns  in the area took place in 2008, 2012 and 2016, but unfavourable weather conditions prevented more recent operations.

The remains of grapes are seen in a burnt out Vineyard after a fire passed through near Bunyip in Victoria on Sunday March 3. Photo: AAP

The most recent burn took place in autumn 2018, with just a three hectare burn taking place in the south of the park, near Dingo Ridge Track.

A Royal Commission into the devastating 2009 Black Saturday and Gippsland bushfires -- which killed 173 people and left entire communities devastated -- recommended the government quadruple the amount of controlled burning it undertakes.

However, a spokesperson for the Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMVic) said the agency uses a "risk-reduction target" to focus on areas that will have the greatest impact in reducing fires, rather than aiming to clear a certain number of hectares.

A spot fire on the Bunyip side of the Princes Highway in Victoria, Sunday, March 3. Photo: AAP

"The target means we are burning smarter, rather than focusing on a number of hectares target," the FFMVic spokesperson said.

"In some areas, this may mean less planned burns – in other areas it may mean more – but communities can be assured that our activities are focused on making them safer and protecting their local environment."

The East Central Bushland area is tricky to manage, with significant areas of forest which is usually too wet to burn -- it will only burn in periods of extended dry, such as the current drought, which is neither a safe nor practical time to undertake planned burning.

An aerial shot of the Jinks Creek Winery before the fire. Photo: Facebook.

Clarke said the government's response is "crap".

"I find it reprehensible that they can try and defend themselves when they haven't done anything. It's a lie," he said.

"Everyone that lives here knows nothing's been done, so I don't know how they can defend themselves."

Clarke, who lost $2 million worth of infrastructure in the blaze, said he's considering legal action against the state government for "incompetence".

In the meantime, the family is "barely coping" as they come to grips with losing everything.

Starting the vineyard again is not an option.

"I'm nearly 60," Clarke said.

"I don't think I can do it anymore. What am I going to do?"

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au