Fire warning for absentee farmers

Jo FulwoodCountryman

Many agricultural communities are on high alert in anticipation of one of the worst fire seasons on record.

A long wet winter combined with a soft spring finish has translated into increased fuel loads, particularly in communities with large areas of bushland.

In the wake of the destructive bushfires in the NSW Blue Mountains over the past few weeks, fire-control officers are warning WA residents to clean up their properties or risk facing a terrifying summer.

Shire of Toodyay chief bush fire-control officer Murray McBride, who manages five different brigades involving more than 300 people, warned his area could be facing a devastating season, with the local brigade called out to 38 fires already this year.

"I think it's going to be a terrible fire season, the fuel loads are very high and it's been a couple of years since we've had a big fire here," he said.

"We find in Toodyay, if we haven't had a decent fire in a couple of years, people get forgetful."

Mr McBride blamed excessive vegetation close to buildings, for the many destructive fires throughout the area.

"People are planting trees to bring the bird life in and make their houses pretty - but they are planting things that are highly flammable," he said.

"All those eucalyptus trees that are planted so close to houses, with branches touching right up to the gutters. In the case of a fire, the houses don't stand a chance, the heat is right there, it's under the gutters and it gets straight into the wood structure."

Mr McBride also said some landowners were complacent when it came to reducing the hazards around their properties.

"Fire breaks need to be completed every year, not just once in a while," he said.

Mr McBride said for many hobby farmers and absentee farmers, it was easier not to think about fire plans.

"Some people aren't learning from our fires and we will keep losing houses because people are not being vigilant," he said.

"The simple message is - be prepared."

"It's not going to be a very peaceful season, that's for sure."

Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades of WA president Terry Hunter said 26,000 bushfire brigade volunteers protected about 80 per cent of the State against fire.

He said recent budget figures quoted by the Emergency Services Minister showed $25 million was allocated to local governments for the running of the Volunteer Bushfire Brigade and the State Emergency Service, while $225 million went to the running of Department of Fire and Emergency Services, in the last financial year.

Mr Hunter said the Association is advocating for more funding to be made available for local governments to manage their bushfire brigades, particularly for additional equipment and expanded training.

"There is an inadequacy there - that's the feedback we are getting from around the State," he said.

However, Mr Hunter said most farmers were well-prepared for the summer months and many were dedicated bush fire volunteers.

"In the farming community the volunteering is about self preservation," he said.

"Very rarely will somebody from a farming area not respond to a fire, or do the remedial work required to reduce the hazard."

Mr Hunter said firefighters were more concerned about absentee landowners and hobby farmers, who allowed a large build- up of vegetation on their properties, and did not do any work to reduce the risk of fire on their property.

However, he said moves to centralise the volunteer brigades under one government department would be met with resistance.

"The feedback that we have been getting is that the majority of volunteers would prefer to stay attached to their local government," Mr Hunter said.

Under the Bush Fires Act, local governments have the right to issue firebreak and fuel reduction notices on all land, including private property.

Earlier this week, Emergency Services Minister Joe Francis launched Bush Fire Awareness Week, saying it is vital that the community plays its role to protect property and lives.

"We've just had a wet winter which has led to higher grass growth and an increase in fuel loads. The wet conditions have also restricted prescribed burning. That means any bushfire has the potential to be intense and dangerous," Mr Francis said.

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