Fire Management on Private Land

The following is a brief outline of the situation on private property. For a more complete account of the situation, see Bushfire Problems>Fire on Private Land in WA.


Historical Background

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 bushfire 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 fuel reduction burning program.

The Current Situation

 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 in retreat areas like Denmark.  Furthermore, manyowner/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 is emergency 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!

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.

 Unfortunately, we now are seeing more of this: