The Keelty Special Inquiry

The Keelty Inquiry into Bushfires in WA.

A submission from The Bushfire Front Inc

April 2011

Summary

Bushfire management can be looked at in two ways:

(i) the efficiency with which bushfires are tackled and suppressed after they start; and

(ii)the measures which can be taken in anticipation of a bushfire, to ensure fire damage is minimised or prevented and fires are easier and safer to suppress.

This submission from the Bushfire Front focuses on the second of these issues.

We have approached the subject from the perspective of many years accumulated bushfire experience and wisdom, professional training in fire science and operations, and from a keen interest in the way fire management systems have declined in WA over recent years. We conclude that there are serious deficiencies, both in bushfire governance, and in the technical application of practical bushfire damage prevention measures. These deficiencies explain the current high levels of damage, and point to higher levels ahead if no remedial action is taken.

We make 19 recommendations. Of these the most important are:

 In the area of bushfire governance:

* That the Government of Western Australia adopts an overarching State Bushfire Policy to guide its agencies and local government;

* That the Government appoints a Bushfire Commissioner, independent of agencies and local government, to set standards in bushfire management and to monitor and report publicly on outcomes, and who will report to a Ministerial Bushfire Council comprising the Ministers for FESA, DEC, Planning and Local Government;

* That the Government creates a new Rural Fire Service (complimentary to FESA who would still provide firefighting services), with responsibility to promote, manage and oversee bushfire management in rural areas, including the outer suburbs which intermingle with bushland; and

* That the Government expands the membership of the Conservation Commission and the FESA Board to include people with practical experience and expertise in bushfire management.

In the field of bushfire technology and operations:

* Under the terms of the State Bushfire Policy, incorporated into local government policies, all houses built in areas designated as being bushfire-prone must meet the key requirements of ASA 3959-2009

* That  every local government authority in the south-west be required to develop a bushfire strategy; this will include designation of bushfire-prone areas, annual mapping of fuel loads for public review, including review by the Bushfire Commissioner and the use of a Community Bushfire Preparedness checklist;

* That ESL funds are available to Shires to employ a ‘fire crew’ who can undertake fuel reduction on private land and shire reserves;

* That DEC increase its annual fuel reduction target to at least 300,000 hectares, and in the event  that they fail to achieve 80% of their target, they be required to report the reasons to Parliament via their Minister;

*  That constraints relating to smoke from DEC and “official” bushfire brigade fuel reduction burns be removed;

* That Shire Councils be required to enforce the Bush Fires Act and that measures to enforce action are taken where individual Shires fail to fulfil their responsibilities; an

* That a professionally designed community education program on bushfires, starting in schools and progressing through all levels of threatened communities be developed and implemented.

Additional recommendations are made in relation to powerlines, the ‘Stay or Go’ issue, warning systems, policing of evacuations, the impacts of climate change and economic/financial analysis of the cost-effectiveness of alternative bushfire approaches. We include a brief comment on evaporative air conditioners.

 Finally, the Bushfire Front recommends that the Government agree to a review of implementation of the findings from this Inquiry in three years time, with a report to Parliament.

The submission comprises

* an introduction that provides background information on bushfire management and on The Bushfire Front;

* a response to each of the Terms of Reference for the Inquiry;

* conclusions and recommendations;  and

* an appendix dealing with community bushfire preparedness.

1.Introduction

 1.1The Bushfire Front

This submission to the Perth Bushfire Inquiry (“the Keelty Inquiry”) is made by the Bushfire Front Inc. We are a group of West Australians concerned to prevent bushfire damage to lives, property and community and environmental assets. The organisation was formed in 2003 in the wake of destructive bushfires in NSW, ACT and Victoria and the realisation that the same causative factors, mainly dangerous fuel levels, were prevalent in WA.

Our members have accumulated 400 years of first hand practical experience in bushfire prevention, firefighting, bushfire science, fire planning, administration, legislation and agency operations.  Many of us are retired former senior forestry officers.

We are volunteers. The Bushfire Front is not affiliated with any government agency, political party or organisation. We are not in “the blame game” but are community members genuinely anxious about the bushfire situation. We wish to see avoided the needless damage, waste and sorrow caused by high-intensity bushfires. Our main focus is the southwest of WA (an area west of an imaginary line from about Geraldton to about Albany), where hundreds of thousands of people, valuable property, public assets and priceless forests are threatened by bushfires.

Our priorities are to see in Western Australia:

* The appointment of an independent State Bushfire Commissioner;

* Clear policy guidance in bushfire management;

* Accountability for bushfire outcomes and an annual, independent and published audit of the State’s bushfire management and control system;

* Expanded programs of fuel reduction on private and public lands;

* Enforcement of  the Bush Fires Act, especially tackling failure of landowners and agencies to manage fuel loads on the land under their control;

* An effective community education program; and

* The development of a Rural Fire Service.

Analysis of bushfire management in Western Australia indicates that it has numerous deficiencies. Until significant changes are made to policy, governance and to the approach adopted on the ground, the prospect of further serious bushfire damage becomes virtually inevitable.

1.2Our perspective

Bushfire management can be looked at in two ways:

(i) The efficiency with which bushfires are tackled after they start. This is the aspect concerned with fire suppression, mop-up and post-fire recovery; and

(ii)The measures which can be taken in anticipation of a bushfire and which are aimed at ensuring fire damage is minimised or prevented and fires are easier and safer to suppress. This work generally falls under the term ‘bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation’. A good analogy is with programs of crime prevention or of inoculation against infectious diseases.

We understand that in the south-west of WA, bushfires cannot be prevented. They will be started by accident, lightning or arson. We also give credit to Western Australian firefighters, who are brave, generally well-equipped and trained, and highly dedicated.

However, what is lacking, in some cases completely absent, is an effective, well-coordinated and cross-tenure program aimed at achieving the highest possible levels of preparedness and damage mitigation. This is the core of our concerns.

The Bushfire Front has a special interest in bushfire issues in the Perth Hills region. We devote a major section of our website www.bushfirefront.com.au to this matter. However, we emphasise that there are other parts of the South-West that have almost exactly the same  problems, including outer-suburban areas to the north and south of Perth, rural residential subdivisions near Bunbury, Busselton, Margaret River, Augusta, Dunsborough and Denmark, and a number of country towns within the forest zone. All of these areas are vulnerable to bushfire damage resulting from a combination of the following pre-disposing factors:

* A high population, most of whom are inexperienced with bushfires;

* A mixture of public and private land tenure;

* Heavy bushland fuels and under-prepared properties;

* Narrow roads, commonly with long unburnt road verges which once alight can make travel by fire appliances and evacuees dangerous.

* Overhead powerlines and inadequate water supplies;

* Inadequate numbers of seasoned firefighters; experienced in tackling fast-moving fires in native vegetation. and

* No systematic approach towards community bushfire resistance.

The recent disastrous fire at Roleystone/Kelmscott is a microcosm of a large and significant three-fold problem in WA:

(i) the high number of bushfire-vulnerable communities;

(ii) the lack of recognition that fuel levels must be managed; and

(iii) a lack of urgency to implement fuel reduction and other damage mitigation measures.

 1.3This submission

Recent reviews of bushfire management in WA have been deficient in that they were not independent, or were too narrow in scope. On the other hand, there have been two excellent Federal level inquiries in recent years (‘A Nation Charred’ from the House of Representatives, and the 2010 Senate Inquiry) which provide good background information and recommendations appropriate to WA.

We have made a submission to FESA’s Roleystone/Kelmscott Fire Review currently being undertaken by Stuart Ellis Review and met with Mr. Ellis.

We welcome the Keelty Inquiry which we believe will be comprehensive, professional and independent.

In the following, we address the Terms of Reference, but also raise other issues that we believe to be significant.

2.BFF response to the Terms of Reference

 2.1: The adequacy of current preventative measures, specifically prescribed burning and other bushfire mitigation activities.

Again we emphasise that bushfires can never be prevented, no matter what measures are taken; but bushfire damage can be minimised, by application of measures which are practical, well-understood and have been shown repeatedly to markedly reduce fire intensity, improve firefighter safety and the prospects of containing a bushfire. The failure of governments at all levels to recognise the need for and to put in place effective measures for the prevention/minimisation of bushfire damage through preventative measures is the principal concern of the Bushfire Front.

There are six key problem areas:

 (i)DEC is years behind in the implementation of its prescribed burning program in South-West forests. As a result fuels have built up over large areas, and high intensity fires can now develop even under mild weather conditions.

The reasons for this situation are two-fold:

First, DEC has set their annual burn target too low; furthermore they have frequently failed to achieve their target. The target is based on a perceived need to ‘preserve biodiversity’, rather than giving priority to prevention of bushfire damage and this has led them to undertaking small, mosaic burns instead of large strategic burns and to extend the interval between successive burns. In fact this approach is counter-productive, as under the current policy bushfires will be larger, more intense and likely to do long-lasting damage to biodiversity.

The second issue is that DEC is forced to operate under constraints that make it easier to post-pone burns than to carry them out. There are many constraints, but the most important is the requirement to minimise smoke into built-up areas and vineyards. Every year, DEC is prevented from utilising, or chooses not to utilise perfect burning weather in the northern jarrah forest, because of the risk that smoke will drift into the city.

(ii)The approach of FESA to bushfire management is largely to work on fires after they start, which we describe as a ‘suppression strategy’. FESA firefighters are highly skilled in dealing with house and urban fires, where a suppression strategy is appropriate. The reason it is adopted by FESA is readily understood: it is in line with the way they respond to other emergencies such as cyclones, floods or other life-threatening civil events.  But the suppression strategy has never succeeded for bushfires. It was tried by the WA Forests Dept from 1918 to 1953 and its failure culminated in the Dwellingup Fire and other major fires in the South West in 1961. The US Forest Service, with far more equipment and resources at their disposal than any Australian agency, has consistently failed to control forest fires burning in heavy fuels in adverse weather. It is only in recent times that the US Forest Service has recognised that the key to controlling major fires is to control fuel levels in advance of a fire occurring.  

The suppression approach adopted by FESA means that there is no State government agency in WA dedicated to achieving effective bushfire pre-suppression through fuels management on private land.  This is the reason we recommend the formation of a new agency, a WA Rural Fire Service.

 (iii)Hazard reduction, including fuel reduction, on private land, on land vested in government agencies (e.g., Western Power, Landcorp, Watercorp, etc), and on land vested in Shire Councils has almost no priority in WA. Private landowners are usually required by their local Shire to comply with firebreak orders, but not to reduce fire hazards on their properties. Under the Bush Fires Act, responsibility for enforcement of fire hazard removal resides firstly with the Shire but ultimately with FESA who, until a Rural Fire Service is created, need to become far more involved in this critically important work. Many shires actually discourage fuel reduction burning by land owners, and do no burning themselves on bushland and road reserves under their jurisdiction.  In other situations, where volunteer brigades are trained and equipped to do burning, and the weather is suitable, they are prevented from doing so by concerns about the impacts of smoke.

(iv)Information on fuel loads within and adjacent to fire-vulnerable communities is neither collected nor mapped and is thus not available to the public or to fire suppression commanders. There are no integrated regional fuel management plans, indeed no systematic approach to fuel/hazard management whatsoever. Not only does this mean that communities are exposed to an unidentified threat, it also means that when a fire does start there is no data base on fuel age or weight that can be used by the Controller to plan suppression operations.

(v)Any fuel reduction burning that is undertaken on private land and on land vested with Shire Councils is almost completely dependent on the volunteer bushfire brigades. Brigade members do a superb job, but are limited in the hours they can put in to fire preparedness work. For instance, many volunteers generally are not available for burning during the week or at short notice so that they can take advantage of ideal conditions. Most Shires lack professionally trained and experienced officers who can measure and map fuels, draw up prescriptions for burns, supervise prescribed burning, maintain data bases and train the community. Shires also lack resources for burning. A great deal of hazard reduction work could be done by a Shire crew under a trained overseer and with the support of a trained officer. Again, to optimise this work, the smoke management guidelines need to be relaxed.

In our view, fuel management needs to be treated by Shires as an essential service, just like management of roads, public health and provision of recreation facilities.

(vi)The Emergency Services Levy (ESL) does not appear to be available for fuel reduction burning or hazard management. Large sums of money are collected under this levy each year, and could be allocated to Shires to employ fire crews.

Conclusion: the current standard of bushfire damage prevention in Western Australia is inadequate and the task is not appropriately supported or resourced. This is the primary problem which the Keelty Inquiry should address.

Recommendations on the first Term of Reference:

1. The Government should relax smoke restrictions on DEC during the critical winter and spring burning period to allow DEC to address its burning program backlog, especially in or near bushfire prone areas of the south-west.

2.An appropriate proportion of the Emergency Services Levy (ESL) should be directed to Shire Councils in the South-West zone of WA for the employment and training of specialist fire crews under the control of the Shire Fire Control Officer.

3.Administration of the Bushfires Act should be placed under a new authority which we suggest be called the Rural Fire Service. It should be staffed to deal with the extreme diversity of bush fire management problems in WA, varying from those in semi-urban bushland to country shires comprising park and farmland; its operations need to be closely integrated with the firefighting operations of FESA, the land and fire management operations of DEC and the policies of the electricity distributors and planning authorities.

2.2 The impact of land use, environmental and building laws, practices and policies in the affected areas, affecting bushfire prevention, mitigation and response and what, if any, changes may be required.

There are two key points to be made in relation to this Term of Reference.

 First, WA has no State Bushfire Policy which would spell out, amongst other things, uniform requirements in terms of land use planning and building laws in bushfire-prone areas. On the contrary there is a mish-mash of policies developed independently by different government agencies and local governments. A State Bushfire Policy would provide over-arching policy guidance to the WA Planning Commission, to DEC, FESA, Department of Planning and Infrastructure and to Local Government. This policy would also address the issue of investment priorities, and the need to recognise and give high priority to pre-suppression planning and damage mitigation measures.

Secondly there is already an Australian Standard (ASA 3959-2009) which sets out the way in which houses should be built in bushfire prone areas so as to increase their resistance to bushfires. All Shire Councils in WA should make this compulsory for new houses in areas that are designated as bushfire-prone.

The Inquiry should also take note that:

* The large number of small reserves vested in local government bodies receive very little or no fuel management. This is partly because of the fear that many Shires have about the environmental impact of fuel reduction burning. However, as already pointed out, Shires need their own resources, in particular their own dedicated fire crews, to manage bushland within the Shire that is vested in the Shire. These crews would also bolster fire suppression resources during the fire season.

* The existence of reserves such as the Darling Range Regional Park scattered within residential areas provides an avenue for large-scale fuel build-up, due to the policy of DEC to manage such reserves primarily for biodiversity conservation. This policy and associated management practice, requires urgent review.

Finally, we point out that most of the bushfire prone residential areas in WA are still served by overhead powerlines. Many of these lines have aged poles and out-dated pole-top infrastructure, and are poorly maintained in terms of vegetation maintenance along lines. The risk of electricity-caused bushfires in WA is very high, and gets higher annually as the task of maintaining vegetation on powerline corridors continues to expand.

WA needs a government-sponsored system which ensures detailed audit and public reporting on bushfire mitigation work along powerlines, and penalties where essential bushfire prevention work is not done. Victoria has an excellent system, developed in the wake of the Ash Wednesday Fires of 1983.

Recommendations on Term of Reference 2:

4.The State should develop an overarching Bushfire Policy to guide and coordinate the efforts of relevant Government agencies and local government authorities.

5.Under the terms of a State Bushfire Policy and a uniform policy that all local government authorities must be required to adopt, all houses in areas designated as ‘bushfire-prone’ must conform with the requirements of ASA 3959-2009

6. WA should adopt a rural powerline audit and reporting system similar to that used in Victoria.

2.3. The actions that can and should be taken by landowners, residents and tenants in relation to bushfire risk management including undertaking vegetation clearance, operation of evaporative air-conditioners and storage and/or removal of hazardous inflammable material surrounding their dwellings and buildings. This should include consideration of associated enforcement regimes and penalties.

There exists already a very good set of requirements and “rules” in relation to action that should be taken by landowners, residents and tenants to reduce bushfire risks. These have been developed over many years by the former Bush Fires Board and by FESA, based on local experience and on the findings from research and bushfire inquiries in the eastern States.

The problem is not that we do not know what should be done. The problem is that people do not do it; nor are they required to do it, nor are they given practical assistance to do it. Seldom are properties inspected to determine the location and extent of dangerously high fuel loads by the authorities with jurisdiction in this area.

There is a large body of information available on overcoming community ignorance and apathy. This issue has been dealt with in bushfire inquiries since 1939. The answer lies in ‘the three Es: Encouragement, Education and Enforcement’, all of which are lacking in WA, viz:

* No government agency actively promotes fuel and hazard reduction programs on private land in WA. Many Shires are anti-burning.

* Existing community education programs are ineffective. This is demonstrated by the general ignorance and complacency towards fire preparedness found within WA outer-suburban communities.

* In general, Shires do not set maximum fuel levels for privately owned bushland. Appropriate levels are 8 tonnes per hectare in jarrah-type fuels and 19 tonnes per hectare in karri-type fuels. Simple guides are needed to help landowners classify fuels and assess fuel loadings.

* There is virtually no law enforcement of fuels management/ hazard reduction in WA, despite the fact that there is an excellent provision of the Bush Fires Act that allows it. Legal action is seldom taken against land owners who do not comply with the Act.

There is a difficult policy conflict in WA between regulations aimed at preventing land clearing (under the Wildlife Conservation Act) and regulations promoting fire hazard reduction (under the Bush Fires Act). Many landowners are confused by this situation. This theoretically allows a Shire to issue a notice under the Bush Fires Act instructing a landowner to clear vegetation within 20 meters of their house, then prosecuting them under clearing regulations for removing green vegetation whilst doing so.

 It is true that rural Shires occasionally levy fines for failure to install firebreaks, but they generally ignore the problem of fuel loads and treat firebreaks as if they were effective in stopping high intensity fires, which they are not.

Land owners in metropolitan areas in WA (which are largely not threatened by bushfires) play a surprisingly effective role in constraining bushfire preparedness in areas that are threatened by bushfires. This is explained by the aversion to smoke by many city people which severely restricts the amount of burning that DEC is able to do on land for which it is responsible. Until the government relaxes smoke control guidelines for the winter and spring burning period when south-easterly winds are dominant, DEC will never be able to redress the backlog in its burning program in the Hills region.

Good land use planning can minimise the creation of bushfire-vulnerable houses in peri-urban areas. However, this does not take away the need for improved management in existing developments. In these areas Shires could implement a systematic annual checklist on the fire preparedness of their residential communities. The Bushfire Front has designed a template which could be used as a basis for this checklist, and a copy is attached at Appendix 1.

Recommendations on Term of Reference 3:

 7. A far more effective approach is required by Shires to reduce fire hazards around homes, including enforcement where required. Direct contact with householders rather than sending out leaflets is likely to be more effective in promoting awareness of fire issues and fire law.

Evaporative air conditioners

This issue has been of interest for several years. It is well known that an air conditioner may suck in, or provide an entry point for burning embers, and these may lead to ignition of the roof space in a dwelling. The Bushfire Front has no expertise in the technical aspects of air conditioner design or optimum operation in a bushfire situation, but has concluded, on the basis of observation of many bushfires, and research by the CSIRO, that:

(i) the critical factor leading to house ignition is the “ember storm” generated by a high intensity fire;

(ii) ember storms and high intensity fires are far more likely to occur if a fire is burning in heavy bushland fuels, because such fires “crown” and develop their own winds; and

(iii) houses remote from a fire front which are subjected to an ember storm are most vulnerable when there is no-one on the site to defend them.

It is likely that an evaporative air conditioner will exacerbate this situation, simply because it provides another point of entry, indeed an enhanced point of entry, to burning embers. On the other hand if the ember storm can be prevented in the first place by fuel reduction in bushland close to houses, then the presence of roof top air conditioners is less critical.

Conversely, if for some reasons, fuel reduction is not carried out in bushland adjoining residential areas, making a high intensity fire and an ember storm inevitable at some time, then we believe it would be prudent to investigate improved air conditioner technology, making them less likely to be an entry point for spot fires.

2.4The adequacy and effectiveness of information and communication campaigns and mechanisms, including systems for alerting residents in relation to the fire or potential fires.

There is no effective community education system in relation to fire in Western Australia, nor is there a professionally designed syllabus relating to fire science and fire management taught in schools.

It is clear to us that the basic tenets of an effective communication strategy have not been understood or followed. The requirements are: (i) decide on the message you want to transmit; (ii) identify the target audiences; (iii) identify the most appropriate medium for putting the message to each audience; (iv) do the work; (v) test the result – how well has the message been heard and converted into action? And (vi) go back to the start and do it all again with a revised approach, if necessary.

The Bushfire Front has spoken to numerous Perth Hills residents who are supremely confident that if threatened by a fire, a fire truck will come up the drive or a water bomber arrive overhead.  There is an alternative message which in our view will encourage greater self-reliance: “it is likely that firefighters will NOT arrive; properties and land owners must therefore be well-prepared and able to act responsibly on their own behalf”. 

The extensive losses of houses during the Roleystone, Lake Clifton and Toodyay fires clearly demonstrates that current firefighting resources are not able to meet the demand for property protection created by a fast-moving,  intense bushfire, and this is the message people need to hear. Clearly there is a parallel responsibility for people who are not physically capable of dealing with a fire crisis to ensure they move well away before a fire arrives at their doorstep…. an issue discussed later in this report.

From experience, it seems that the concept of encouraging people to rely on an electronic warning system is unsatisfactory.  Instead, people should be encouraged to be self-reliant and vigilant. “If you live in a bushfire prone area, keep your eyes and ears open for a fire!” should be the message, not sit back and wait for a message on your mobile phone. 

Recommendations on Terms of Reference 4:

8. A professional communications strategy must be developed and implemented, with key messages aimed at key audiences using the most appropriate media, and which is subjected to an on-going audit of effectiveness.

9.The potential should be explored of setting up alternative bushfire warning systems. In addition, all radio stations could be obliged to transmit bushfire warnings, with ABC 720 still having carriage of ongoing fire reporting.

2. 5Improvements that can be made in relation to the coordination of activities across all levels of government, including with volunteer groups

Lack of coordination in bushfire management is one of the most serious issues in Western Australia. For example:

* There is no coordination at the top. WA has four Ministers with responsibilities relating to bushfires: the Ministers for FESA, Environment, Planning and Local Government, plus key ministers associated with power and water supplies and roads. They all operate independently. There is no coordinating mechanism, such as a Ministerial Bushfire Council at which policies and strategies can be thrashed out, and conflicts resolved.

* The two main agencies, FESA and DEC each have a “Board of Management” that oversees their policies, management plans and operations, i.e., the FESA Board and the Conservation Commission. These bodies do not appear to have established a positive dialogue in relation to bushfire management. Furthermore, both bodies need members with expertise and practical experience in bushfire management.

* LGAs each have their own bushfire policies, and there is no coordination across Shire boundaries. This could be simply overcome by the State government adopting an overarching bushfire policy and then requiring Councils to implement it.

* There is no integrated fuel management policy or program across land tenures; no targets are set nor are outcomes publicly reported.

* Volunteer firefighters are losing interest due to the fact that many of them feel they are regarded as “second class citizens”. This applies more to members of the old style “straight off the farm” brigade members than to the modern, uniformed volunteers.

* The Bushfire Front has been made aware of troubles and ill-feeling within the brigade network and this has the potential to militate against an effective volunteer firefighting service.

It is clear from recent fire disasters in WA at Lake Clifton, Toodyay and Roleystone/Kelmscott, that current government institutional arrangements do not meet the challenge of mitigating the effects of bushfires, especially in per-urban districts, and a thorough review of the situation is required.

Recommendations for Term of Reference 5:

10.The Premier should direct the Ministers for Environment, FESA, Planning and Local Government to form a Ministerial Council on Bushfires to facilitate policy development and review and coordination of bushfire governance. This Council would have authority to co-opt the Ministers responsible for power supply, water supply, catchment management, roads and railways, Landgate and so on in relation to bushfire issues.

11.The Premier should form a Bushfire Commission, with a Commissioner, independent of DEC and FESA. This need only be a small agency with three or four professional staff plus administrative support. The Commissioner would report to the Premier.

12.A comprehensive fuels management policy and program, integrated across land tenures, and incorporating annual mapping and public reporting of fuel loads in bushfire-prone areas, must be developed and implemented.

13.An independent review is needed into volunteerism in bushfire management in WA in order to disclose and deal with the reasons for any current discontent amongst volunteer firefighters.

3.Other matters

3.1The ‘Stay or Go’ policy

This policy has become confused in the wake of the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria. It is now interpreted as simply a ‘Go’ policy, with the order “Everybody Out!” arising every time a fire threatens residential areas or farms. It appears that the aim is to save lives, and that to do so it is necessary to sacrifice homes.

There is another approach. This is a policy to save both lives and houses, and it is the underlying approach of the original pre-Black Saturday policy which, correctly spelled out was “Stay if you are able bodied and your property is well prepared, and you have the necessary training and equipment to defend yourself and your house; if not go, and if you go, then go early.”

Unfortunately this rather wordy statement was abbreviated to Stay or Go, and many people in the Victorian fires stayed whose properties were not prepared and who were not able to mount an effective defence against a high intensity fire generating an ember storm.

The reverse applied at Kelmscott, where houses were abandoned as part of an enforced evacuation. A post-fire review suggests that many of the houses could easily have been defended as they were impacted by embers, not a fire front.

There is a related issue that has been of concern for some years, and which came to the fore during the Roleystone fire. This was the actions of the police and security guards. The policy of exclusion of all from a fire zone frequently leads to difficult situations….for police officers as well as residents. During the Roleystone fire TV coverage showed a young man, who tried to cross the police barrier to defend his home, being handcuffed and placed in a paddy wagon. It may well have been that his defence of the home might have saved it. This policy places police officers in an invidious position. This matter is one of broad public disquiet and needs to be addressed.

Recommendations

14.The State government needs to clarify the policy on staying to defend a property or enforced evacuation. It should be possible to come up with a position in which both lives and property are protected.

15.The actions of police and security guards in forcibly preventing people from defending their homes need review and a revised policy developed.

3.2The impact of projected ‘global warming’

There has been talk in the media over recent years that bushfires in Australia will become “worse” (by which is meant more frequent, more intense and more damaging) due to a projected global warming. The Bushfire Front takes a different position on this issue: if meteorological conditions change to the extent that bushfires become more frequent and intense, then it re-emphasises the need to improve preparedness and damage mitigation measures.  We deplore the view that “nothing can be done”. Much can be done, in particular in relation to fuels management. Even under the highest temperatures, fire intensity will be lower in light fuels than heavy fuels.

If global warming is accompanied by declining rainfall, as the CSIRO climate models predict, this will provide a bonus for bushfire managers, because it will increase the number of days on which mild fuel reduction burning can be accomplished during winter and spring conditions.

Recommendation

16: This Inquiry need take no position on the potential impact of climate change, as under good management positive and negative outcomes will neutralise each-other.

3.3Economic/financial analysis of bushfire management

A further missing factor in bushfire management in WA is cost-benefit analysis of alternative fire management systems. For example the cost (as well as the difficulty and the resultant damage) of fire suppression in the absence of fuels management is clearly greater than the cost in its presence. Unfortunately these analyses are either not made, or are not made public.

It appears to the Bushfire Front that firefighting in WA is becoming increasingly expensive. We observe the importation of firefighters and fire equipment from the eastern states, and the use of very costly suppression technology on even the mildest of fires. On the other hand, we are aware from our own experience of the ease with which fires can be suppressed in areas carrying low fuels as a result of a relatively inexpensive fuels management/hazard reduction program.

Recommendation

17: A detailed cost-benefit study needs to be made of bushfire management in WA with a view to disclosing to government and to the public the most cost-effective approach.

4.Conclusions

Western Australia has for many decades been regarded as a world leader in bushfire management. However, standards have declined in recent years, especially in relation to fuels management on public land, and the application of appropriate preparedness and damage mitigation systems on private land.

This submission has outlined the reasons for the decline and the measures that need to be taken to reverse it. We make 19 recommendations which, if implemented would make a significant improvement to the protection of Western Australians and their values and assets from bushfire damage.

5.Recommendations

1. The Government should direct the EPA to relax smoke restrictions on DEC and on volunteer bushfire brigades during the critical winter and spring burning period.

2.An appropriate proportion of the Emergency Services Levy (ESL) should be directed to Shire Councils in the South-West zone of WA for the employment and training of specialist fire crews under the control of the Shire Fire Control Officer.

3. Administration of the Bushfires Act should be placed under a new authority which we suggest be called the Rural Fire Service. It should be staffed to deal with the extreme diversity of bush fire management problems in WA, varying from those in semi-urban bushland to country shires comprising park and farmland; its operations need to be closely integrated with the firefighting operations of FESA, the land and fire management operations of DEC and the policies of the electricity distributors and planning authorities.

4.The State should develop an overarching Bushfire Policy to guide and coordinate the efforts of relevant Government agencies and local government authorities.

5. Under the terms of a State Bushfire Policy and a uniform policy that all local government authorities must be required to adopt, all houses in areas designated as ‘bushfire-prone’ must conform with the requirements of ASA 3959-2009

6.WA should adopt a rural powerline audit and reporting system similar to that used in Victoria.

7. A mechanism is needed to ensure Shires adopt a more effective approach to reducing fire hazards around homes, including enforcement where required.

8. A professional communications strategy must be developed and implemented, with key messages aimed at key audiences using the most appropriate media, and which is subjected to an on-going audit of effectiveness. Direct contact with householders rather than sending out leaflets is likely to be more effective in promoting awareness of fire issues and fire law.

9.The potential should be explored of setting up alternative bushfire warning systems. In addition, all radio stations could be obliged to transmit bushfire warnings, with ABC 720 still having carriage of ongoing fire reporting.

10.The Premier should direct the Ministers for Environment, FESA, Planning and Local Government to form a Ministerial Council on Bushfires to facilitate policy development and review and coordination of bushfire governance. This Council would have authority to co-opt the Ministers responsible for power supply, water supply, catchment management, roads and railways, LandGate and so on in relation to bushfire issues.

11.The Premier should form a Bushfire Commission, with a Commissioner, independent of DEC and FESA. This need only be a small agency with three or four professional staff plus administrative support. The Commissioner would report to the Premier.

In addition, both the Conservation Commission and the FESA Board need additional members with practical bushfire experience and bushfire management expertise.

12.A comprehensive fuels management policy and program, integrated across land tenures, and incorporating annual mapping and public reporting of fuel loads in bushfire-prone areas, must be developed and implemented.

13.An independent review is needed into volunteerism in bushfire management in WA in order to disclose and deal with the reasons for any current discontent amongst volunteer firefighters.

14The State government needs to clarify the policy on staying to defend a property or enforced evacuation. It should be possible to come up with a position in which both lives and property are protected.

15.The actions of police in forcibly preventing people from defending their homes need review and a revised policy developed

16. This Inquiry need take no position on the potential impact of climate change, as under good management positive and negative outcomes will neutralise each-other.

17A detailed cost-benefit study needs to be made of bushfire management in WA with a view to disclosing to government and to the public the most cost-effective approach.

Finally, the Bushfire Front recommends that the Government undertakes to

18. Publish its response to the Keelty Report and highlight the recommendations it has accepted and

 19. Review and publicly report in 3 years time, upon the degree of implementation of accepted recommendations.

Appendix

Community Bushfire Preparedness

A checklist for residents in bushfire-prone areas in south-west WA

Introduction

In rural Australia, bushfires are inevitable. They are a consequence of our climate and weather, our flammable vegetation and the constant sources of fire from lightning strikes, accidents or human folly.

However, no two fires are alike. Bushfires can vary from a mild, trickling burn which is easily extinguished and causes no harm, to a raging inferno that is impossible to extinguish and which does irreparable damage.

The factors that determine whether it will be a mild or intense fire include:

* The weather conditions, especially wind strength;

* Fuel dryness and quantity; and

* The degree to which communities are prepared to resist a fire onslaught.

Weather conditions cannot be controlled. But both fuel quantity and community preparedness can.

 Fuel quantity is the most important factor affecting the killing power of a bushfire. Residential areas adjoining bushland which carries heavy, long-unburnt fuel is a highly dangerous combination. The more fuel, the more likely a bushfire will rapidly become uncontrollable, will generate an ember storm, throw spotfires and do serious damage.

Bushfire preparedness is also critical. A well-prepared community will be able to absorb most bushfires without loss of life or serious damage. Good preparation will

* reduce the intensity of a bushfire entering residential areas;

* make fires easier to control and safer for firefighters;

* make it easier to save lives and community assets; and

* allow the community to “bounce back” after the fire, with a minimum of disruption and cost.

The Bushfire Front proposes that residents in bushfire prone areas utilise the following checklist to assess how well their community is prepared for bushfires and to develop (in collaboration with their Shire and FESA) a systematic program to upgrade bushfire preparedness and community safety.

Our basic message is this: bushfires can never be prevented, but much can be done to minimise or prevent the damage a bushfire might cause and the cost and hurt of bushfire impacts.

The checklist

 1.Community bushfire leadership

1.1Does your Shire have a Bushfire Strategy (or ‘Action Plan’) which

* defines and maps the main bushfire threats to residential areas;

* identifies community assets that are vulnerable to a bushfire;,

* sets out the measures the Shire will take to mitigate bushfire damage;

* sets out community warning, safety and firefighting arrangements;

* assigns responsibility for action; and

* is annually reviewed and updated as required.

1.2.Does your Shire employ one or more full-time staff members who are trained and experienced in bushfire management and whose responsibility is to oversee bushfire prevention and community preparedness?

1.3Does your Shire enforce the provisions of the Bush Fires Act which require landowners to remove bushfire hazards on private land?

1.4Does your Shire acknowledge that its bushfire responsibilities are its highest priority?

2.Actions in the event of a bushfire

2.1Has the adequacy of trained firefighters been independently assessed?

2.2Does the Shire arrange an annual ‘Brigade Health” check to help bushfire brigades judge how well they are equipped and operating?

2.3Has the Shire set up local volunteer “bushfire ready” groups to promote, advise on and check household and landowner preparation for the fire season?

2.4Have residents been provided with clear information and training that will help them make a timely decision to stay or go in the face of an incoming fire?

2.5Has the effectiveness of information and training packages been tested?

3.Fuels management

3.1Are bushland fuels (quantity and/or age) within and adjoining the community assessed, rated and mapped annually, and the results made public?

3.2Does the Shire advise landowners that there is a maximum fuel tonnage allowable on privately owned bushland?

3.3Does the Shire carry out, or authorise regular (less than 10 years interval) fuel reduction on its own land, including road reserves?

3.4Does the Shire initiate an annual meeting between the Shire, FESA, DEC, Western Power and any other relevant government land owner to develop a strategic fuel reduction program for the year ahead and review past efforts?

3.5Is a database maintained by the local authority of prescribed burns and fires?

4.Warnings and safety

 4.1Does the community have a bushfire warning system, and is it tested every summer?

4.2Have ‘Safer Havens’ (non-flammable areas to which people can retreat and be relatively safe in the event of a serious fire) been designated and signposted?

5.3Are ‘mock fire’ events held to test the community’s readiness for a serious fire?

5.4Is there a community bushfire education program implemented in this community every summer?

5.5Is the effectiveness of community education on bushfires tested in any way?

6.Schools and hospitals

6.1Does each school and hospital (and equivalent institutions, for example nursing home, kindergarten, seniors residence, backpackers hostel) in the area have a Bushfire Action Plan with one or more people designated as responsible for preparedness and evacuation if necessary?

6.2Are school and hospital bushfire action plans annually reviewed, updated and signed off by FESA?

6.3Do schools in the community ensure students are professionally instructed in bushfire behaviour, fire preparedness, and action in the event of a fire?

6.4Are school and hospital fire plans tested to see that they work?

7.Independent review

7.1Is the bushfire preparedness of this community evaluated by an independent expert every three years?

7.2Is the review tabled with Council and publicly reported?

 Follow-up Action

The Bushfire Front recommends that a bushfire preparedness survey be undertaken by residents in bushfire-prone areas every year. It should be done in collaboration with their Shire Council and FESA. The outcomes and recommendations should be presented to the Shire Council and made public through the media and should provide the basis for investment in a concrete plan to upgrade community bushfire safety and maintain it at the very highest level.