Farmers’ report backs firefighting change

Jo FulwoodCountryman
Grass Patch farmers David and Linda Campbell with Dan Sanderson and a copy of the independent Pacer Legal report which was tabled in Parliament by Eyre MLA Graham Jacobs.
Camera IconGrass Patch farmers David and Linda Campbell with Dan Sanderson and a copy of the independent Pacer Legal report which was tabled in Parliament by Eyre MLA Graham Jacobs. Credit: Countryman

A $100,000 independently funded report into the Esperance bushfire tragedy has echoed the sentiments of the Ferguson Report, highlighting significant problems with existing bush firefighting arrangements.

The Pacer Legal report was instigated and funded by farmers and local businesses in the Esperance region.

The report controversially recommends the removal of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services from the administration and distribution of the Emergency Services Levy, with these responsibilities also to be transferred to an independent body.

It also recommends the Office of Bush Fire Risk Management becomes an independent body.

The report is at odds with the government-commissioned report by Nous Group into the Esperance fires, released last March, which concluded that despite the catastrophic conditions and competing resource demands across the State, the Esperance fires were “generally well managed”.

Grass Patch farmer Dan Sanderson, who was one of several growers leading the push for an independently funded report, said he still could not understand how the fire, which was started by lightning on a Sunday, remained out of control for several days.

“There were severe weather conditions forecast for that Tuesday, November 17, so we still can’t quite believe that more resources weren’t diverted into controlling this fire which had started on the Sunday,” he said.

Mr Sanderson said the Pacer Legal report had been instigated by a group of farmers who were concerned at reports filtering out from what he termed “authorities” that the fire had been well managed.

“We all really disagreed with that, there were so many ways this fire could have been handled differently and this report has now backed up what we have been thinking for the last 12 months,” he said.

Mr Sanderson said Telstra should have had access to phone towers to install generators to allow firefighters to use their mobile phones.

“These towers were not at risk, and the Telstra workers should have been escorted into the area to set up those generators,” he said.

Mr Sanderson said it was critical that the Emergency Services Levy was managed by an independent body to ensure greater transparency of the fund, which will collect more than $338 million in 2016-17.

The ESL is currently collected and the fund managed by DFES.

The Pacer Legal report was released and tabled in Parliament today by local Member for Eyre Graham Jacobs, on the 12-month anniversary of the fires, which claimed the lives of four people.

Dr Jacobs said early intervention, hazard reduction, and mitigation were three key strategies to come out of the report.

He supported calls for the establishment of an independent body to manage bushfires, saying it could fit well under the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW). “In the Esperance region we have 2000km of unallocated crown land and farmland interface, and so instead of creating another empire, I think the new body would sit nicely there,” he said.

“DFES is good at metropolitan-type structural fires, but bush firefighting seems to sit better with DPaW,” he said.

Dr Jacobs agreed that communication had been a major issue in the Esperance fires.

“There needs to be a communication system that can sustain the ravages of fires so that communication can always occur between those in the fire appliances,” he said.

The report contains 12 recommendations, including the call for the Office of Bush Fire Risk Management to become an independent body.

Four of the recommendations relate to the accessibility of water bombing planes and pilots.

Most notably, the report covers the issue of communication and the lack of understanding in regard to who was in charge of the fire.

“Between Monday evening and Tuesday at 19.20, there are conflicting statements between the involved parties as to who was in control of the fire.

“Local government believed that DFES was in control and DFES believed that local government was in control,” the report stated.

Dr Jacobs said since the release of the Ferguson report, the Government had allocated $15 million in grant funding for hazard reduction activities, and two water bombing planes had been sitting at the Esperance airport since the 1st of November.

“We now acknowledge that our fire hazard period begins in November, not December,” he said.

Mr Sanderson said it was concerning that DFES had made access to certain documentation difficult throughout the reporting process.

According to information contained in the report, while other government bodies all provided Pacer Legal with documentation relating to the fires, DFES failed to submit certain information.

Mr Sanderson said he understood that DFES was the only body requiring payment for information.

“In light of our inability to access source documentation from DFES and DFES advising that they will not be able to comply with our request until December 2016, in regards to the Fire as at the date of this Report, we note that some reliance has been placed on information contained in the Nous Report,” the report stated.

But DFES Acting Assistant Commissioner Murray Bawden refuted that statement, saying DFES had authorised the release of all information requested and was working collaboratively with the lawyers to provide this information.

Mr Bawden said DFES supported the State Government direction, and would provide support and advice as required.

“DFES will continue to work in partnership with the multiple agencies and thousands of volunteers involved in the fire and emergency services across WA to implement any changes needed,” he said.

“For this season, our focus is on training, capability improvements and preparation for the bushfire season as we continue to work hard to keep the community safe.”

Mr Sanderson said he hoped the Pacer Legal Report would be used by the Government to improve firefighting activities in regional Western Australia.

“We want to see some good common sense changes in fighting fire, that’s all we want,” he said.

“We don’t want any more lives to be lost.”

The report will be circulated to local governments and volunteer bushfire brigades.

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