Calls grow for fire service overhaul

Jo FulwoodCountryman
Bush Fire Front Inc. chairman Roger Underwood said rural WA needed an agency led by people with bushfire, farming, forestry and rural land management experience, not by urban firemen.
Camera IconBush Fire Front Inc. chairman Roger Underwood said rural WA needed an agency led by people with bushfire, farming, forestry and rural land management experience, not by urban firemen. Credit: Gerald Moscarda

Farmers and lobby groups are calling for the establishment of a rural fire service to oversee fire management in country areas, ultimately stripping control of the volunteer bushfire brigades from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services in the event of a major bushfire.

This call comes after the completion of the Ferguson report into the Waroona and Yarloop bushfires.

The independent inquiry by former Victorian Country Fire Authority head Euan Ferguson into the recent fires was lodged at the end of April, but as yet there has been no Government response to his findings.

While the report has also not yet been made public, a spokesperson for Premier Colin Barnett said the report was expected to be released in the next fortnight.

The spokesperson said the Department of Premier and Cabinet would back the report to Cabinet by the end of July.

There is some speculation the recommendations from the report will create a backlash from both the DFES and the United Firefighters Union of WA.

It is believed the report will recommend the establishment of an overarching body, separate to the DFES, to oversee rural bushfires.

The Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Bridges WA, The Bush Fire Front Inc. and WAFarmers have all called for a separate, independent body with specialist knowledge of rural bushfires to be established, which would be called into action at the event of a rural fire.

AVBFB WA president and former Kulin farmer Dave Gossage, who is on a tour of regional areas investigating rural fire services, said it was time to decentralise the bushfire control system.

He said the DFES’s approach of centralising all firefighting processes was not working.

“This centralised control model is fundamentally flawed, will disempower communities, and will cost the Government in the longer term a lot more because volunteers will walk away,” he said.

“The strong message and consistent theme from all rural areas that I have visited is that they do not want a remote department or person making decisions and being the judge, jury and executioner — this is not how we do business.”

Mr Gossage said given that local governments were the organisations that managed the volunteer bushfire brigades, more of the Emergency Services Levy needed to come back to these local brigades.

He said the majority of ESL funds came from money raised though the rates process, yet only a minority was returned to local governments.

Williams farmer and Shire president John Cowcher, part of the volunteer team fighting last year’s Boddington-Quindanning fires, and said he also supported a move away from the controlling arm of DFES.

“Under the current arrangements with DFES, we are just seeing one disaster after another,” he said.

“I’m a supporter of a new arrangement. We need get away from what we currently have because it’s not working.

“I don’t think DFES has its finger on the pulse and their staff don’t give enough recognition to local knowledge.

“There were so many opportunities with that Boddington fire, and unfortunately they let the fire get too big before they did something about it. Its all about response time.”

Mr Cowcher agreed the ESL system needed an overall.

“We receive a very small percentage of that money back here in Williams. We haven’t even got a fire fighting unit from DFES,” he said.

“Obviously they don’t consider we need one, even though we’ve been applying for one. All our fire-fighting units are farmer owned and yet we pay our ESL the same as everyone else.”

Well-known fire commentator Roger Underwood, who is also president of The Bush Fire Front Inc., says his organisation had been advocating for a separate country fire service for years.

Mr Underwood said rural WA needed an agency led by people with bushfire, farming, forestry and rural land management experience, not by urban firemen with little bush experience or land management skills.

“We’ve been pointing out for quite some time that WA is the only State in Australia where bushfire management is in the hands of a metropolitan fire brigade,” he said.

Mr Underwood said any rural fire service organisation needed to be based outside the metropolitan area.

“Possibly it could be based somewhere like Bunbury and it would be staffed by people with a background and experience in managing bushfires,” he said.

“At the moment DFES guys come in and take over from the volunteers, and they bring their own people with them, they set up their own headquarters, and the volunteers often don’t like being told what to do by people who don’t know the area in terms of local geography, don’t know the people involved, and don’t know how to fight bushfires.”

Mr Underwood questioned why the Ferguson report had not been released for public scrutiny, or had not received any Government response to date.

“We would have expected it to be out well before now,” he said.

“The report was lodged at the end of April and here we are in the middle of June. It’s taking a very long time for the Government to provide a response.”

Yarloop farmer Phil Penny, who was chief bushfire control officer for the Yarloop fires in January, said he was disappointed the Government had been sitting on the Ferguson report without providing a response.

“I don’t think this report will give the Government any pats on the back,” he said.

“But its got to a point now where we need to see what the umpire, as in Euan Ferguson, has come up with, and whatever recommendations are in that report we need to make sure they are implemented in a timely fashion, not just talked about for another six months and left for the next term of office to implement.”

Mr Penny refused to speculate on the outcomes of the report, but agreed volunteer bushfire brigades needed to be separated from the DFES.

“Fire in a rural landscape is a totally different concept to what it is in a cityscape,” he said.

“You can’t have jack-of-all trades trying to dictate what the country does.

“We need to separate the two services. How that is done, whether under a governing body or not, I’m not sure at this point in time.

“We need to take a step back and have a look at what is best to solve the issues that have arisen in the last five years, with a growing number of larger fires.

“If the service is split into two, both organisations should be funded on their requirements and with DFES becoming a smaller service, their funding requirements should be less.

“One of our biggest resources are our farmers, so to deny them the proper equipment, or tell them to fund themselves, is wrong.”

Pingelly farmer and Shire of Pingelly chief bushfire control officer Rod Shaddick said a big concern would be the funding of any new rural fire service.

“I have serious concerns around funding yet another level of bureaucracy,” he said.

“Unfortunately, since the introduction of the ESL it appears to me that a significant amount of levy payers’ money is being spent on projects that justify someone’s job, meaning there is little or no funding left for projects that could make a real difference to fire prevention and control, particularly beyond the outer metro areas.

“This is difficult to understand from a farmer’s point of view as we are brought up to understand that when your local community is in trouble or under threat from fire, you just get in and do whatever is needed.

“If there were to be a rural fire service, who would be in charge of the pot of money? And probably more to the point, who would be responsible for it? We would need to be confident that a lot more of the ESL can make it up over the Darling Scarp and have it invested wisely where it is needed.”

WAFarmers has also joined the call for the creation of a separate organisation to oversee rural fires.

Executive officer of policy Grady Powell said any new organisation would also need to take responsibility for fire mitigation in rural areas as well as firefighting.

Mr Powell said the Esperance fires were an example of the need for greater mitigation plans in rural areas.

“The devastation of the fires in Esperance was directly related to the lack of fire mitigation in the area, so should there be a country fire service, we would like it to be standalone, and we’d like them to have responsibility of fire mitigation, bringing it outside of the Government departments.”

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