2016 Ferguson Inquiry Submission

 

Mr. Euan Ferguson

Bushfire Inquiry

West Leederville, WA

Dear Sir

Submission to Inquiry into the Yarloop/Waroona Bushfire by the Bush Fire Front Inc

SUMMARY

The Bushfire Front is horrified by the outcome of the Yarloop/Waroona bushfire. However, our principal concern is with the predisposing factors that led to the fire being unstoppable, not with the management of the fire itself.

Bushfire management in WA has at a low ebb. Key concerns are: the policy vacuum; lack of leadership; bushfire-exposed assets and forests; and lack of focus, expertise and resources for rural fire management;.

Tinkering at the edges will not solve the current bushfire crisis. WA needs significant policy, institutional and structural changes to the State’s bushfire management model and operations.

We recommend:

* The development of a State Bushfire Policy

* The appointment of a State Bushfire Commissioner;

* The creation of a Rural Fire Services;

* A refocusing of investment from bushfire response to bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation, especially the resitution of an effective fuel reduction burning program on south-west forests;

* A Centre for Excellence in Fuel Reduction Burning; and

* A tougher approach to making rural residential areas bushfire-resilient.

The Appendix summarises our recommendations against the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference.

  1. INTRODUCTION

The fundamental concern of the Bushfire Front (BFF) is that the current model for bushfire management in WA is flawed and does not protect lives, assets and the environment from high intensity bushfires. The priorites for remedial action have been brought to the attention of the WA government and agencies on many occasions over the years. They are:.

(i) Provision of bushfire leadership.

(ii) Development of an over-arching bushfire policy in WA that will provide the goals, and clarify the mission and priorities for all government agencies and Local Government Authorities (LGA) in relation to bushfire management.

(iii) Development of an investment strategy and statement of priorities to guide expenditure on bushfire related work into what will be most effective in minimising bushfire damage ? as opposed to investing predominantly into fighting fires after they start.

(iv) A new focus on protecting lives, assets and the environment ? as opposed to focusing only on saving lives.

(v) Restitution of an effective fuel reduction burning program in State forests and national parks, and introduction of an effective fuel reduction regime on other crown lands

(vi) An effective program of Education and Enforcement at Local Government level so as to minimise bushfire hazards on all crown, Shire and private lands within a LGA jurisdiction.

(vii) Development of a sophisticated training program to lift standards and confidence in fuel reduction burning.

(viii) Upgrading the management of volunteer firefighters, including building their capability and resources to enable them to undertake fuel reduction burning.

These issues are fleshed out below.

2. NEW LEADERSHIP

WA has no single bushfire policy and no unified bushfire leadership. Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner (Wayne Gregson) has no jurisdiction over DPaW or other land-owning agencies, and choses not to insist that LGA do the fire management job required of them.

We recommend the appointment of a bushfire supremo, perhaps with the title of Bushfire Commissioner. The Commisioner will operate from within the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and be supported by a small cadre of professional officers. The job will be:

* Development of an over-arching State Bushfire Policy, with which all government departments and LGA must comply;

* Establishment of a Rural Fire Service (discussed in more detail below);

* Development of an investment strategy to guide the allocation of the State’s (and Federal) funds to bushfire management for adoption by the State Treasury and departments (discussed below);

* Establishment, and management of collaborative/cooperative arrangements between all State agencies;

* Oversight of bushfire planning and preparedness;

* Reporting annually to the Premier and to Parliament on the state of bushfire preparedness, on bushfire outcomes, and on priorities for the year ahead.

* Updating, as required, bushfire legislation and regulations.

The Bushfire Commissioner will subsume the bushfire related roles of the State Emergency Management Committee, which is regarded as ineffective in its current structure and institutional arrangement.

3. CREATION OF A RURAL FIRE SERVICE

We recommend that a Rural Fire Service be created from the subdivision of DFES into:

(a) An urban fire service, comprising the career firemen. The UFS will be responsible for fire fighting in the towns in which they are located. The UFS may be called upon to assist with fighting bushfiresin rural areas, but in this situation will fall under the control of the Rural Fire Service (RFS).

(b) A rural fire service, to be established from existing staff within DFES and new recruits, to be responsible for bushfire management (including preparedness and damage mitigation) in rural areas and within the rural/urban interface.

The Rural Fire Service will report to the bushfire supremo. It will

* Manage day-to-day collaboration between DFES, DPaW and LGA in all matters relating to bushfire policy, management and funding.

* Incorporate the Office of Bushfire Risk Management and the bushfire section of the Dept of Planning.

* Ensure that fuel reduction programs, particularly in forest areas, are maintained and enhanced.

* Assume responsibility bushfire planning, fire threat analysis, Bushfire Management Plans, township and key infrastructure protection plans, provision of equipment and aircraft, preparedness, mitigation, fire response and recovery in the rural/urban interface and in country areas.

* Set the required standard for bushfire management on all lands not currently serviced by an urban fire service and where necessary insist that these standards are enforced

* Establish a Head Office in Bunbury, with regional offices in the main regional centres and recruit a cadre of professional and field staff experienced in bushfire management.

* Be supported by a Board, comprising representatives from the Volunteer Bushfire Brigades, LGA, Police, Farmers Federation, and others as decided by the bushfire supremo.

* Operate under specific legislation to provide them with the necessary statutory powers.

* Provide the necessary leadership to establish a Centre of Excellence in Fuel Reduction Burning in WA (discussed below)

The Rural Fire Service will not take over DPaW fire management operations and research. DPaW fire management personnel will continue to function as a separate entity, but in close collaboration with the Rural Fire Service where applicable.

Volunteer bush fire brigades will continue to operate under the jurisdiction of LGA. However, the Rural Fire Service will oversee training and equipment, and will develop a mechanism for provide brigade members with recompense for work on fuel and hazard reduction.

4. A NEW INVESTMENT STRATEGY

We recommend that the Government reviews the fiscal arrangements for all current bushfire-related activities in WA so as to indicate (i) the extent of funds currently available and (ii) current areas of expenditure. This will form the basis of a new investment strategy.

We recommend that investment in prevention, preparedness, damage mitigation, enforcement of fire hazard reduction, and education and training should AT LEAST equal investment in fire fighting operatons.

We also recommend:

(i) a full cost/effectiveness review of aerial water bombing in WA. This cost/benefit analysis must be undertaken by independent analysts, not by officers of DFES.

(ii) a detailed examination of the waste of funds in firefighting, including ineffecient use of contractors.

The new Bushfire Commissioner will arrange for the review of current funding availablility and arrangements and will be responsible for developing the new investment strategy.

5. RESTITUTION OF THE FUEL REDUCTION PROGRAM IN SOUTH-WEST FORESTS

Approximately 70% of the south-west forest estate is today carrying dangerous fuel loads. This compares with the situation in the mid-1990s where approximately 80% carried fuel ages of 8-year old or less.

The prescribed burning program in south-west forests fell away after about 1995 as a result of many factors, the three most important being changed priorities, lack of funds/resources and the imposition of external constraints. Although warned, the government did not foresee the consequences of this situation.

The simple fact is that fires are more intense, and therefore harder to control when burning in heavy fuels. If the fire is burning in heavy fuels and they are completely dry, and occurs during severe fire weather, it rapidly becomes a crown fire and is unstoppable. These are the fires that do all the damage.

Opposition to fuel reduction burning by a small number of environmental activists and academics has no credibility. Their reasoning is specious, or mischevous.

This inquiry MUST come out with a strong statement supporting a return to the proven approach to fuel reduction burning in State forests and national parks in the south-west, including:

* Unequivocal support from the highest levels in government;

* Reduction or removal of un-necessary constraints (especially bureaucratic);

* Re-institution of the DPaW district HQ at Dwellingup and Manjimup, with professional leadership and field staff and employees to undertake burning;

* A quadrupling of funds to be applied to the annual burning program.

The BFF has produced a paper setting out the principal constraints to fuel reduction burning in south-west forests. This can be made available to the Inquiry if requested.

6. DEVELOPMENT OF A CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE IN FUEL REDUCTION BURNING

It is not enough to provide more resources for fuel reduction burning. It is also essential that the burning is done professionally and safely. Skills must be learned from proper instructors and then honed in the field under the influence of experienced mentors.

There is a dearth of expertise and confidence in government agencies, Local Government and many brigades.

We recommend the development of a Centre of Excellence within WA which will provide trainees with

* An introductin to bushfire history

* An understanding of bushfire science, especially the factors affecting fire behaviour, and fire ecology;

* The rationale for fuel reduction burning;

* Case studies on the success of fuel reduction in the control of bushfires;

* Planning and conducting a safe and effective fuel reduction burn.

Classroom lectures will be followed by field experience. The course will be run on a pay-as-you-come basis, and be open to government officers, Local Government staff, bushfire brigades and landowners.

7. BUSHFIRE STRATEGY

The Bushfire Front is critical of the current approach to management of bushfire events. This appears to be to give priority to saving life, while being prepared to sacrifice assets and the environment, and is typified by the following approach:

* A fire is reported;

* If residential areas are likely to be threatened they are evacuated;

* Firefighters fall back to the threatened asset, leaving the fire to burn unopposed;

* There is heavy reliance on water bombers, rather than on ground firefighting.

Because this approach allows a fire to build up “a head of steam”, asset protection becomes almost impossible. An allied concern is that evacuation is proceeding these days along roads that have not been prepared as safe conduits under extreme conditions.

We recommend a return to the following approach: (i) firefighters go to the fire and work on it, if necessary pinching in the headfire from the flanks, using bulldozers; (ii) assets are prepared well in advance of a fire, so as to minimise the threat of being taken out by an intense fire; and (iii) communities are trained to be self-reliant and responsive to a bushfire threat, rather than sitting back waiting for someone to look after them or tell them what to do.

CONCLUSIONS

Bushfire management in WA needs radical surgery if the prevalence of serious, damaging fires is to be reduced. Tinkering at the edges will not make any difference to the current situation.

WA needs new policy, new leadership, a new agency, a new investment strategy and a new approach to fighting fires. A “business as usual” approach will be a prelude to further bushfire disasters.

Roger Underwood

Chairman

February 26th, 2016

 

APPENDIX: RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE BFF AGAINST THE INQUIRY ToR

  1. The response to the January 2016 Waroona Fire

The BFF recommends that the Inquiry clarify these issues in relatioin to the areas in which the fire burned:

* In whose jurisdiction did the fire start (DPaW region and district)?

* What was the fuel age in the area where the fire started?

* What were the fuel ages in the areas into which the fire burned on the first day and night?

* What was the influence of Alcoa minepits on fire behavior and difficulty of suppression?

* What is the tenure of the land in which the fire started and what does the Management Plan for this land specify in terms of fuels management?

* What is the tenure of the land adjacent to Yarloop, and who is responsible for this land?

* What fire hazard reduction operations had been undertaken in the land adjacent to Yarloop over the last 10 years?

* What fire hazard reduction operations had taken place within Yarloop to prepare it in the expectation of a fire?

We also recommend that the inquiry clarifies these issues in relation to fire response:

* At what time did the fire start (if known), or approximately?

* What was the elapsed time between ignition and detection for the initial fire;

* To whom was the fire initially reported?

* What was the time of initial despatch?

* What was the elapsed time between detection and first attack in the field?

* How many crews were initially deployed and then later how were numbers built up?

* Where did the crews comprising first attack come from?

* What is the approximate distance by road from (i) Dwellingup and (ii) Harvey of the initial fire?

* When were heavy bulldozers introduced to the fire?

* What contribution did Alcoa make to fire suppression?

  1. Lessons learned from previous bushfire emergencies

The BFF recommends that the Inquiry look carefully into the reports of inquiries by SEMC and Nous into the February 2015 O’Sullivan and Lower Hotham bushfires. These are lengthy and detailed reports, but contain pertinent information.

  1. The need for further reform

The BFF recommends the following reforms:

* The development of a State Bushfire Policy which will guide the policy and priorities of all government agencies and LGA;

* The appointment of a State Bushfire Commissioner to oversee bushfire management in this State;

* The creation of a Rural Fire Service;

* Development of a new investment strategy that will refocus expenditure from bushfire response to bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation;

* The restitution of an effective fuel reduction burning program in south-west forests;

* The creation of a Centre for Excellence in Fuel Reduction Burning; and

* Institution of a tougher and more effective approach to making rural residential areas bushfire-resilient.