Landmark Ferguson Report

The Ferguson Report – A Landmark Result For Rural Fire Management

Euan Ferguson deserves praise for the clear and practical outcome of his inquiry, in the face of undoubted strong opposition from DFES and the empire-building United Firefighters Union.

In this post we comment on the overarching issues facing fire management in WA, not the details of the Yarloop fire itself.

From the perspective of The Bushfire Front, Ferguson’s main recommendations for improvement of rural bushfire management are:

  • Create a Rural Fire Service.
  • More fuel reduction burning on crown, private and other lands.
  • Establish an oversight inspectorate that can monitor and report independently on bushfire outcomes.
  • Improve treatment of, and relationships with the volunteer brigades.
  • Streamline the process for burning approvals.
  • Establish a Centre of Excellence in bushfire management, including prescribed burning.

We strongly support all these recommendations. The creation of a Rural Fire Service is the crucial factor that must be accepted by Government. However, it will be effective only if it has the right policies, culture and staff. The latter will be problem initially due to the need to counterbalance the destructive policies of several agencies and Local Governments over the last 15 years. Nevertheless, it is vital that the State bite the bullet and proceed with it.

The nature of the agency, whether a stand alone organisation or a sub-agency of DFES is also critical point. Ferguson gives the Government these two options, although he firmly comes down on the side of a new stand-alone agency. We agree. DFES should be totally removed from rural fire matters, other than assisting with firefighting as part of interagency teams. After all, the current mess is almost entirely due to DFES mismanagement over the last 15 years. For example, the need for fuel reduction burning on private land, and on land held by several Government agencies, has been ignored, or even actively discouraged by DFES. This is not just our opinion; it is what members of rural fire brigades have been telling us for years. The well-known DFES bias toward bushfire response rather than prevention and fuel hazard management is another major reason for removing it from the rural area entirely.

Funding of a new agency is clearly an issue for the Government. However, since a substantial part of the income for the Emergency Services Levy comes from rural regions, it would be logical, and only fair, to use part of the ESL funds to establish and run the new agency.

At the time of writing this comment, the WA government has made no commitment to implementing Ferguson’s recommendations. We have written to the Premier and advised him that there will be a massive backlash in country areas if there is “another Yarloop” or “another Esperance” and the Ferguson report is still languishing. We are calling on interested people from all walks of rural life to contact the Premier and let him know that positive action is needed.

The time for tinkering at the edges is over. Radical institutional, policy and cultural changes are required if rural West Australians and their environment are to be protected from the ravages of destructive bushfires … and the Ferguson Report has provide the springboard from which good changes can be made.