Minister dampens fire service hopes

Daniel Emerson and Rueben HaleThe West Australian
Yarloop was all but destroyed by the Waroona bushfire last year.
Camera IconYarloop was all but destroyed by the Waroona bushfire last year. Credit: Tony Elson

Regional West Australians can forget about an Eastern States-style rural fire service because of the deterioration of the Budget, new Emergency Services Minister Fran Logan has indicated.

An independent rural bushfire service was the key recommendation out of the official investigation into last year’s devastating Waroona bushfire, which all but destroyed Yarloop and killed two men.

Investigator Euan Ferguson declared the delivery of rural fire services “deficient” and would be best improved by the creation of an entity separate to the existing Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

A second option was a “sub-department” of DFES with its own budget, responsibilities and powers.

A third option, submitted by DFES, was for a “rural fire command” within the department to elevate the delivery of regional services, which was not supported by Mr Ferguson.

Mr Logan said the State Government was considering all options ahead of a mitigation “summit” promised during the election campaign, which he was aiming to hold before June.

But he warned the public not to expect the “rolled-gold” model.

WA farm groups, the Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades and mitigation lobby group The Bushfire Front have argued in favour of a standalone agency similar to Victoria’s Country Fire Authority.

But Mr Logan said such a model could cost up to $400 million.

“We haven’t got that kind of money at the moment,” he said. “Everyone would love to win Lotto, but we are not going to do that.

“We are in a financial situation that is far worse than we thought it was, and we have got to cut our cloth to suit.”

Mr Logan said it also remained to be seen whether metropolitan ratepayers, which stump up to 85 per cent of the emergency services levy, would be content for it to be spent on a separate rural service.

WAFarmers president Tony York said Mr Logan needed to consider the importance of an independent rural fire service and look at restructuring the existing DEFS to allocate resources from internally and without the need for additional funding.

“A separate rural firefighting service will ensure swift action from the trained people on the ground,” he said.

“This will allow people in regional areas to manage blazes as early as possible rather than have them wait for back-up, which has been identified as a frustration for farmers and the wider community when their homes are under threat.

“While it is fair to say the State’s current financial situation is dire and that this rural fire service would cost a lot of money, the service is urgently needed, particularly now as we move towards the end of the fire season and start preparing for next summer.

“In terms of funding, WAFarmers is eagerly awaiting findings from the Economic Regulation Authority’s review of the Emergency Services Levy, which is currently underway.

“The ESL funding estimate for 2016-17 is $339 million. With this sort of budget, we believe a rural fire service could be accommodated.”

Mr York said during the State Election campaign, the Labor Party had made a commitment to additional resources for regional communities and front-line regional fire services, and ensuring more effort was made in mitigating against the risk of fire disasters, including burnoffs.

Meanwhile, AVBFB president Dave Gossage has described the $400 million estimate as being wildly inflated and urged the Government not to discount an independent service.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way, and this State cannot afford to upset volunteers,” he said.

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