Restructuring Bushfire Management in WA

A proposal by the Bush Fire Front Inc., March 2016

Introduction

The 2016 Waroona/Yarloop fire is the latest in a growing number of serious bushfires in the South west of WA. The graph below demonstrates this clearly.

fires2015

Current bushfire arrangements in WA are not coping with the challenge of protecting the community and the environment from bushfire damage. We are in a crisis. Significant changes must be made.

The cause of current problems

WA’s bushfire problems are caused by a combination of factors that include (i) the lack of fuel reduction on forested land; (ii) the reduced window for safe burning, and (iii) inappropriate institutional arrangements.

Why did we have so few bushfires during the 30 years after 1961? There are several reasons:

* The former Forests Department and CALM ensured that their number one priority was the prevention of bushfire damage. There was an effective fuel reduction program, and a professional, decentralised fire fighting force, supplemented by resources from the timber industry.

* The former Bush Fires Board, and local government authorities placed great importance on hazard reduction on private lands, and used the Bush Fires Act to enforce this approach. The Board was also able to ensure that land-owning Government agencies complied with the Act.

* There was a strong, and independent force of volunteer fire brigades who operated under the umbrella of local government in an effective and decentralised manner, and who carried out widespread fuel reduction burning on private land and sometimes on vacant crown land..

 

What has happened since?

* The Forests Department no longer exists. Forest management resources were diverted elsewhere, stripping the southwest of professional leadership and personnel.

* Competing programs in CALM and later DEC reduced resources previously available for burning. The fuel reduction program fell to a level which made it more difficult to prevent large, high intensity bushfires.

* The hardwood timber industry was drastically cut back, resulting in the loss of heavy equipment and experienced operators who could assist in fire suppression operations.

* The Bush Fires Board was dissolved and its role was taken over by FESA, now DFES. This placed rural fire management in the hands of an agency with no experience or expertise in dealing with bushfires or rural communities. The emphasis became emergency response, rather than fire prevention, preparedness or damage mitigation. Fire suppression operations are dominated by asset protection,, rather than direct fire attack. Western Australia is the only mainland State where an urban-centred agency also has responsibility for rural fire management.

* The advent of DFES has led to strained relations between government and volunteer brigades.

* DFES is extremely wealthy, with an assured income from the Emergency Service Levy. However, this is used to fund investment in infrastructure, suppression equipment and water bombers. DFES does not accept that fuel reduction is one of its responsibilities and does not encourage fuel reduction burning by volunteer brigades.

* Some local governments are opting out of actively enforcing the Bush Fires Act or undertaking fire hazard reduction.

* There is no longer a landscape approach to fuel management across all tenures. Local governments and several other Government agencies control significant areas of land but in many cases they fail to manage fuel loads.

These factors add up to a failed and failing bushfire model. The emphasis, in rural areas, must change from bushfire response to bushfire management. By “bushfire management” is meant responsible investment in prevention, preparedness, damage mitigation, education, training and law enforcement, as well as in firefighting.

What is needed

WA needs a bushfire management model that ensures rural fire management is the responsibility of local people who know their own area and have a stake in making the model work through their local government. They must be provided with administrative, professional, technical and training support from a Rural Fire Service that is dedicated to preventing bushfire disasters, and is trusted by local government and rural people. It is especially important to promote, and to improve skills in fuel reduction burning and to provide an environment that facilitates burning on private land.

Our proposal

  1. We recommend that a proportion of ESL funds are diverted to support the creation of a Western Australian Rural Fire Service (RFS), separate from DFES, and responsible for fire management in rural and peri-urban areas.
  1. The mission of the RFS will be firstly, as far as possible, to prevent large, damaging bushfires on private land and secondly to provide a cost effective and efficient fire fighting service in rural areas.

3, Key responsibilities of the RFS will be to ensure the responsible management of land vested in various government agencies and to look after the interests of the volunteer brigades.

  1. Government must ensure that changes to the Bush Fires Act currently being contemplated do not complicate the need for a quick and effective resolution of the crisis in bushfire management, in particular the creation of a Rural Fire Service.
  1. Government must provide sufficient financial assistance to DPaW to enable them to meet an annual fuel reduction target of about 250,000 ha in south-west forests. This will require more permanent field staff and the restitution of the professionally led field districts at Dwellingup, Nannup and Manjimup.
  1. Encourage volunteer bush fire brigades to take up prescribed burning/ hazard reduction on private lands and non-DPaW lands by adopting a system of payment/reward for such activities.

Other priorities, including the establishment of a Centre for Excellence in Fuel Reduction Burning in WA, can be dealt with progressively once the above have been put in place.

Bush Fire Front Inc

March 2016