The BFF promotes improved forest fire management in Western Australia with a mix of activities:
- Meetings with senior Government officers to promote awareness of fire management issues and agitate for greater resources for on-ground fire management actions.
- Meetings with representatives of Government agencies.
- Submissions to public inquiries, such as the COAG Bushfire Inquiry.
- Regional seminars in rural WA in cooperation with concerned local groups.
- Presentations at appropriate conferences.
- Sponsoring seminars on fire management issues.
- A large amount of correspondence to various agencies and bodies to raise awareness of fire management issues and urge action to address them.
Meetings with State Government Ministers.
The BFF has had meetings with several State Ministers for the Environment (who have been responsible for the Department of Environment and Conservation or the former Department of Conservation and Land Management). We have also met with the former State Premier Gallop to underline the seriousness of the fire hazards now facing several areas of the State.
Over several years this succession of meetings must be considered a failure. Despite our most comprehensive presentations, no Government Minister, nor the former Premier, accepted that the State has a problem with fire management.
In February 2009 the BFF met with Minister for Emergency Services Johnson to outline our concerns about fire management on private land and the role of FESA in this area. We hoped that this time our concerns would be heard and addressed, but again, to no avail.
Despite the succession of major bushfires in the Eastern States, which should have rung alarm bells here, no effective action was taken by any State Government until we had our own disasters at Roleystone and Margaret River. The two subsequent inquiries by Mick Keelty provided a long list of useful recommendations that are slowly being acted upon. The slowness of this process is of great concern to the BFF, as is the unwillingness of the Government to address fundamental problems with fire management by DEC.
Meetings with Government Agencies
In 2003 the Auditor General reviewed the institutional arrangements for fire management in the State. BFF had three meetings with the staff of the Auditor General’s office to discuss the direction of the review and express our concern that, initially, the scope of the review was too narrow to contribute usefully to an improvement in on-ground fire management. Our submission to the review pointed out deficiencies in legislation and governance in the approach to fire management in the State. Although the AGO staff understood our concerns, no useful changes have resulted from the review – another example of Government inertia in matters related to fire.
The BFF has had several meetings with CALM/DEC fire management staff to gain briefings on current prescribed burning programs and problems. Agency staff have been most cooperative in providing these briefings and data on the burning program.
While the BFF strongly supports the overall approach to forest fire management being followed by CALM/DEC, we differ in the level of the annual burning program. DEC currently aims to burn an average of 200,000 ha a year in the south west forest zone. BFF believes, on the basis of past experience over 1961-1995, that this area is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection to the forest estate from major wildfires, and that the annual target should be 300,000 ha. Over the 2000-2008 period, DEC has been able to average only 149,000 ha, so that, as at 2009, the there is a backlog of 400,000 ha in the program.
We do not believe that DEC places sufficient priority on the allocation of its resources to prescribed burning during the critical spring and autumn periods.
Meetings have also been held with staff of the Fire and Emergency Services Agency (FESA, now the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, DFES) on a range of issues concerning rural fire management. While we are strongly supportive of the efforts being made by DFES to overcome landholder apathy on fire by promoting improved home protection practices, we remain concerned that the focus of the agency is directed far too much toward fire suppression rather than fire hazard mitigation. Fuel loads on private land are far too high in many parts of the State, and especially in the Perth Hills region. DFES is doing far too little to address this important problem – a problem which now assumes major significance in view of the 2009 Victorian fire disaster, and the more recent NSW and Tasmanian bushfires.
One of the areas carrying high fuel loads in the northern jarrah forest is the large area of rehabilitated bauxite mine pits. BFF has discussed the issue with Alcoa, DEC and FPC. While we appreciate the difficulties faced by FPC in carrying out the thinning of these areas prior to a prescribed burn, we do not believe the situation should just be accepted by the bodies involved. DEC does not appear to regard these areas as a priority for management and is not aggressively promoting the thinning operations.
Submissions to Various Inquiries
House of Representatives Select Committee on Bushfires 2003
COAG Bushfire Inquiry
Review of CALM’s fire management by the EPA 2004
Victorian Bushfire Inquiry May 2007
Senate Inquiry into Bushfires in Australia 2010
Details of all the above can be found under the Background Material section of this website
1. Eaton Seminar on Forest Fire Management
On 29 October 2005, the BFF, in collaboration with Fire For Life, a Manjimup-based community fire management group, held a seminar at Eaton, near Bunbury to examine current issues in fire management in the south west of WA. The following presentations were made at the seminar. They can be viewed in the Background section of this website.
- Barriers to Best Practice Fire Management by R J Underwood
- Firefighters’ Issues by John Evans
- The Dwellingup Fire – Lessons for Today by G B Peet
- Prescribed Burning and Wildfires by F H McKinnell
- The Blackboy Story by David Ward
- Wildfire and Water by Colin Terry (Water Corporation)
In the afternoon of the seminar, a workshop session was hold to discuss the issues raised and to formulate recommendations for improvement. The workshop, together with a survey of attendees before the forum, pinpointed the following priority concerns:
- There was overwhelming support for an effective program of green burning (fuel reduction burning under mild weather conditions) to reduce the damage from severe bushfires. In the jarrah forest, a burning rotation of no more than five years is essential. Not having an effective green burning program is like not wearing a seat belt when you travel in a car. Preventing a disaster is better then fighting one.
- There is a need for WA to make a systematic effort to define and implement a Best Practice bushfire management system. The BFF has developed a template for this and made it available to the Government, but it has been ignored.
- Better accountability is needed at Government level. A Ministerial council may be necessary. At the moment in WA, when it comes to severe bushfires, no one in Government is in charge and can take responsibility.
- Special attention is required to meet the need for a buffer zone of fuel no older than five years for a distance of at least 5 kilometers around all south west towns and settlements that have forests on their border. This must be monitored each year and reported publicly.
- Firefighter safety is the “forgotten issue”. This is especially important in the new wilderness areas the Government is creating, where access will be reduced and fuel levels are likely to increase. The Premier needs to understand that in creating a wilderness area where firefighters are knowingly endangered, there will be serious legal repercussions if firefighter lives are lost.
- Community ignorance about forest fires is great. This will never be overcome without a well-organised and ongoing community education program, starting in the schools.
The Bush Fire Front was encouraged to see that the very people who are involved at the grass roots in fighting bush fires , and who understand the damage that bushfires cause, as well as the danger that bushfires pose to their own safety and livelihoods, are so strongly in favour of of an effective green burning program. The overwhelming message was that bushfire policy should not be made in Nedlands or Cottesloe by people who are not themselves threatened by fires, and do not have to risk their lives putting them out.
2. Dunsborough Fire Management Seminar, October 21, 2007
The following is a summary of the plenary discussions at this seminar.
Fuel Build Up
Lack of attention to reducing fuel build up on the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge is a real problem. While heavy fuels remain over such a large area there is potential for a major fire disaster with extensive loss of life and property. It is now at the stage where it is a matter of when not if such an event occurs.
Long unburnt fuels in Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park need to be reduced by fuel reduction burning and maintained in an acceptable condition by application of a regular burning cycle.
The Department of DEC who manages National Parks cannot be compelled by law to burn land under their control but coordinated influence by many private owners is likely to be more effective than past approaches by the Bushfire Front.
People who live in the city and only visit their properties infrequently are often unaware of fire hazards and the need to take action to reduce fuels on their land. Some have a naïve view that if a fire occurs someone will arrive to rescue them.
Shires currently carry out little fuel reduction burning of land under their control, eg reserves and road verges.
Many owners lack the expertise to carry out fuel reduction burning and even if aware of the problem do not know how to proceed or who they could engage to do their burning.
Fire brigades are manned by volunteers whose primary role is fire suppression. The age profile of brigade members and their own personal commitments mean that brigades are not in a position to carry out much fuel reduction burning.
FESA returns to Shires only a proportion of the Fire levy collected from landowners. Funds returned are largely for purchase of new fire suppression equipment. No monies are returned for fuel reduction, Shires are expected to fund any fuel reduction from their own resources.
FESA is focussed on fire suppression by fire tankers, aeroplanes etc as their key strategy in fire management. Unfortunately experience has shown that where heavy fuels are involved, fires burning in summer under severe conditions cannot be stopped even with large quantities of fire fighting equipment.
There is a strong case for each Shire in the South West to employ as part of their workforce a small gang with experience and skill in carrying out fuel reduction burning. This gang would tackle burning on all Shire controlled lands and also be available to carry out burning on private properties where requested and at the owners expense. Fuel reduction burning should be seen by shires as an essential service exactly the same as rubbish removal, road works etc.
There are people in the WA community who are strongly opposed to fuel reduction burning and who have been very effective in influencing government action and policy on fuel reduction burning.
Much of this opposition is not based on science but nevertheless any burning needs to be properly planned, potential adverse impacts taken into account and carried out by competent and experienced people. Benefits of mild fuel reduction burns in promoting wildflower displays the year after the burn are well known whereas the deaths of large numbers of native animals, trees etc in a severe wildfire can be massive and take decades to recover from.
BRAG (Bushfire Readiness Action Group), groups play a valuable role in alerting and assisting landowners at a local level to prepare their buildings and surrounds to minimise the risk of damage in the event of a bushfire. Encouraging landholders to think ahead of what action they need to take in the event of an approaching fire is also useful.
Police and SAS have developed evacuation plans for most population centres. Should not underestimate though the disruptive impact on landowners and their welfare if a large fire cuts off power, communications and other services. Coupled with the situation that many of the resident population in the summer months are not familiar with access roads and possible evacuation routes, a major fire event with heavy smoke and ash present could result in considerable chaos.
There are different groups in the community with an involvement in fire management and fire control but coordination between groups requires major improvement.
At the State Level the Bushfire Front has identified five different Ministers and their agencies who have responsibility for fire management but coordination between these is limited and there is no one Minister or agency responsible for overall fire management.
Bush fire Front efforts to improve the current situation
Despite the BFF meeting with Premier Gallop, several Ministers, agency CEO’s, the media etc no real change in the approach to fire management has been achieved. BFF view is that no change will occur unless it is initiated from the grassroots level to engage with Shires, local politicians and agency representatives in local areas
The BFF can assist grassroot groups by provision of advice but does not wish to be the spokesman or lead group in approaching Shires, agencies etc.
Formation of a small committee of local landowners
The meeting agreed to form a small local committee of landowners in the Dunsborough area to examine what actions could be taken at local level to make progress on improving fire management in the area. Richard Taylor agreed to act as chairman of this committee. Several other people registered their interest in assisting or being involved in the committee.
Presentations at Conferences
1. Timber Communities Australia Conference April 2007
2. The Stretton Group, Melbourne March 2009
3. LAW conference June 2011
For details see the Conference Presentations sub-page