Fire on Private Land in WA

BUSHFIRE MANAGEMENT IN SOUTH-WESTERN WESTERN AUSTRALIA

February 2009

The Bushfire Front Inc has reviewed bushfire management in south-western Western Australia, in particular the degree to which current management meets the requirements for Best Practice in the bushfire prevention and in preparedness for fires and fire damage mitigation.

Our review indicates that actual performance fails to comply with every one of the ten key performance measures set out in our Best Practice template [*1]. The review is supported by the fact that every summer there are serious and damaging bushfires, a problem which is worsening despite increasing government expenditure.

In this paper we examine the historical development of an effective system of bushfire management in Western Australia, the way the major principles have been undermined in recent years, and we put forward a proposal for change.

This paper focuses on two aspects of a large problem:

  •  the southwest of the state, where most of the population lives and values threatened by bushfires are highest [*2]; and
  •  privately owned land, which is where most fires occur, and where the highest value (human lives) are concentrated. A separate paper will look at the equally serious situation on Crown lands in the south-west.

Evolution of effective fire management on private property

During the middle-years of the last century, an excellent and effective approach to bushfire management on private land evolved. This approach was based on four principles:

  •  The responsibility of owner-occupiers of land for bush fire fuels, and therefore for bush fires;
  •  The oversight and enforcement of the Bush Fires Act by Local Government Authorities (Shire Councils);
  •  Leadership, training, coordination and support from a Bush Fires Board comprising senior officers from the relevant agencies and experienced Shire presidents; and
  •  The concept of self-help, which in turn generated the volunteer bush fire brigades who carried out fuel reduction work and fought bush fires.

The system which developed from these principles was never perfect, but it represented a model for a practical system to minimise bushfire occurrence and damage on private land, a model to which steady improvements in practice could be applied. Furthermore, up until the early 1990s it was supported (in the south-west) by the Forests Department and then CALM who at that time provided leadership  by example, especially in the planned management of bushfire fuels on neighbouring State forests through an effective annual prescribed burning program.

Things have changed  for the worse

Over the last 15 years all of these system elements have been eroded.

In the first place, a great many properties now have owners but not occupiers, for example the hobby farms and weekenders on former farmland adjoining Perth city, along the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge or inretreat areas like Denmark.  Furthermore, many owner/occupiers of land in the most bushfire-vulnerable rural areas are no longer farmers but are city people with no experience or skills in bushfire management, especially fuels management. Bushland where once fuels were managed by grazing or occasional burning, are now left to nature, and become increasingly hazardous as every year goes by.

Next, many Shire Councils are no longer willing or able to enforce the provisions of the Bushfires Act relating to fuels management. A blind eye is turned to owner/occupiers who allow their properties to become a serious fire hazard.

The Bushfire Board no longer exists. It was taken over by the Fire and Emergency Service (FESA), an organisation whose whole ethos isemergency response, not preparedness and damage mitigation. The FESA approach is to spend more and more money on firefighting, with ever-increasing expenditure on equipment to be called in after a fire starts, rather than on the year-in year-out attention to fuel reduction, prevention, training and promotion of good fire planning.

The loss of the Bushfire Board has had another outcome: no longer is there any external body with an interest in the bushfire management performance of government departments. Agencies like the Water Corporation, Railways, Main Roads, Land Corp and so on, who are major land owners and occupiers, and organisations like Western Power who are historically a major source of bushfires, are today able to escape independent monitoring of their activities when it comes to fire. The result is inattention to fuels management or ignition risk, without accountability.

Finally the volunteer fire brigade system in Western Australia is in danger of disappearing. Every year the number of volunteers declines and the age of volunteers goes up. The old and honourable system of Ill help my neighbours, because sooner or later it will be my turn to need help has been eroded and replaced by a Why should I worry? attitude, If a fire starts, the waterbombers and FESA will turn up!

The current approach has been tried before and failed before

On a previous occasion (in the 1960s), the Bushfire Board was placed under the administrative control of Emergency Services and the Minister for Police and Emergency Services. The move was a failure, because under this system, the Bushfires Act was no longer supported. This led to a review and a reversion to the previous situation, with outstanding benefits for bushfire management. For unexplained reasons, the Government then returned to the failed model, which is still applying, and again failing, today.

Many people fail to understand the basic fact of bushfires in Australia

There is a basic fact about bushfires in Australia, understood by experienced land managers, but totally misunderstood by most people in the community including people in FESA. This is: if bushfire fuels are allowed to accumulate, as they naturally do in all eucalypt forests and other native vegetation, sooner or later a fire will occur that is unstoppable by any fire-fighting force.

Inevitably the day comes when there are high temperatures and strong winds and a fire starts. In heavy fuels the fire intensity quickly becomes so great that fire fighters are overwhelmed and great damage occurs [3].

Our proposal

The Bushfire Front recognises the many significant social and administrative changes which have occurred in recent years, and the resultant decline in the standard of bushfire management in Western Australia. This has led to an increased threat to communities, assets and the environment. We therefore make two recommendations:

1. The formation of a new agency with the role of overseeing bushfire management in south-western WA.

The new agency will be modelled on the old Bushfire Board, and will be established under the Bushfires Act. There will be a small number of professional staff, but overall authority will rest with appointed members representing relevant government departments, south-west Shires and independent bushfire specialists. The focus of this agency will be:

  • Implementation of the Bushfires Act;
  •  Establishing standards and performance criteria for fire management on private land;
  •  Providing technical and professional support to Local Government;
  •  Ensuring high standards of planning and of compliance with bushfire management plans;
  •  Monitoring the performance of government agencies and ensuring their accountability for the responsible management of land under their control;
  •  Making independent audits of bushfire outcomes and public reports; and
  •  Ensuring enforcement of the Bushfires Act.

It is not proposed that this organisation take over fire response arrangements from FESA. Fire response is FESAs expertise; they will be better able to concentrate on this, and to fight fires more cheaply and safely if another organisation is working exclusively to upgrade fire preparedness, damage mitigation and fire prevention by actively ensuring fuel quantities and thus a reduction in bushfire intensities. The work of the new agency will also be a boon to police, as it will reduce the pressure on them to evacuate communities threatened by killer bush fires.

The work of the new agency can be partly funded by the Bush Fire Levy, but will soon pay for itself, through the steady year by year reduction in expenditure on suppressing huge bushfires and funding post-fire recovery.

2. A new approach must be developed to provide fuel management services to landowners who are legally required to undertake hazard reduction, but lack the resources or the skills.

This new approach will require professionally led and properly equipped teams who can undertake prescribed fuel reduction work by contract, helping landowners to ensure fire hazards are responsibly and professionally reduced.

The approach would itself be subject to monitoring, so as to ensure the work meets, for example, environmental protection guidelines. Fuel reduction need not always involve fire. In some cases it could involve mowing or slashing or even grazing. Fuel reduction work would be done by prescription, and records would be maintained.

There are two ways this could be done:

  1. by providing Shire Councils with funds from the Bush Fire Levy to employ specialist fire officers who would have access to teams of trained workers, and the necessary equipment to carry out the work professionally and responsibly; or
  2.  by commercial enterprises, set up to perform contractual work in each local district. Either way, the work would be subjected to independent performance monitoring. 

The appointment of an innovative Chief Executive with professional skills and experience will be an essential part of the new Bush Fires Board to lead the development of this concept.

It is not proposed that Shire crews or commercial contractors would be responsible for fire suppression, but it is reasonable to expect that they would be used in fire fighting operations as part of agreed arrangements developed in advance.

Conclusion

Bushfire management on private land in south-western WA is in a parlous state. Increasingly, preparedness and damage mitigation has given way to a suppression-oriented approach, an approach that will always fail in the face of an intense bushfire. Communities in the most fire-vulnerable areas are no longer willing or able to look after themselves, as was once the case, and there is a dearth of leadership from government and local authorities. Some communities in the South West are at serious risk now, and face substantial housing and infrastructure losses, and possibly human life as well. The recent fire at Bridgetown which caused extensive property and environmental damage could so easily have resulted in loss of life had the wind changed slightly.

Decisive intervention is required to deal with this crisis. Changing demographics, changing social factors, government institutions no longer providing a strong example, and increasing hazards on Crown land as well as private land  all at a time when rainfall is declining in the south-west and there is a fear of rising temperatures  mean that the existing system must be changed. It is not coping now, and will become progressively less able to cope in the future.

In the view of the Bushfire Front, the time for action is now.

We are aware that FESA has had the Bushfires Act and its implementation under review for some time but nothing has been forthcoming. We call on the Minister to stimulate this process and activate the changes we propose here. This is absolutely essential to revitalise the Act and to provide an organization capable of implementing these changes.

btown-fire.jpg

 Jarrah forest completely defoliated in the 2009 Bridgetown fire.

Notes:

1. For a detailed appraisal of the situation in WA compared with Best Practice, refer to the remainder of our website

2. This paper does not deal with the situation in Western Australia outside the south-west. It is acknowledged that there is also a serious bushfire problem in the north-west and the Kimberley region.

3. Research has shown that 95% of bushfire damage is done by less than 2% of bushfires! These are the fires we must aim to prevent.