OPINION: Hot air flies in the face of fires

Dave GossageCountryman
Camera IconCredit: News Corp Australia

There has been plenty said and written over the past couple of weeks about bushfires in Australia — some might say too much.

As the president of the peak body for WA’s 20,000 registered members of volunteer bush fire brigades, I find myself torn between adding to the noise or doing what volunteers so often do — shut up, get on with the work that needs to be done and let the paid politicians and activists fill the column inches and radio waves.

WA Voluneer Bushfire Brigade president Dave Gossage.
Camera IconWA Voluneer Bushfire Brigade president Dave Gossage. Credit: Cally Dupe

Bushfire Volunteers has been put in the middle of many poo-sandwiches just like this during our 30 years and there really isn’t an easy way out.

But one thing we have learnt from the decades of listening to our amazing members is that when there is this much political discussion, decisions will be made — and they will be based on the what is said.

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Sadly, being a humble expert like so many of our bush fire volunteers are, this often ends in very poor outcomes.

And there is a lot more that needs to be said.

At the risk of upsetting those pushing a barrow in one direction or another, bushfire is not a consequence of any change in our climate.

While it’s plainly obvious that less rain means drier fuel and drier fuel is typically more flammable, it is well documented that there is evidence of wildfires occurring in Australia for tens of thousands of years.

In more recent history, bushfires were recorded by the earliest of European settlers and significant incidents have occurred almost every year since somewhere in our wide, brown land.

Of course, we need to invest some time and energy on designing the best future possible.

And in terms of human impact on the environment, it is undeniable that some of today’s decisions won’t bear (or destroy) fruit for decades to come.

But the doomsday frenzy and nasty public rebukes about the devastating fires in NSW and Queensland we’ve seen from those in the political bubble recently will not mean fewer fires in the future.

A far greater, and rarely considered, consequence of the ill-informed and horribly over-simplified verbal diarrhoea that has been sprayed across newspapers and TV news for weeks is the impact it has on many of Australia’s estimated 250,000 fire volunteers.

Frankly, it’s more than a little disheartening for the truly incredible women and men of the Bush Fire Service to see so much valuable time and money being used to debate hypothetical extremes while their local brigade can’t even get the funding needed to connect water or electricity.

I can only imagine what it was like for the Eastern States volunteers coming back from a fire ground and seeing that on the 6pm news.

Mind you, I’m realistic enough to understand that when lives are at risk and enormous amounts of public money is on the table, things will always get political.

And this is one of the most fundamental reasons our association and those of our peers in other States exist.

Although we occasionally get feedback from some non-thinkers suggesting we shouldn’t be “political”, the fact is big decisions will be made — about the future and perhaps more importantly, the present — whether our invaluable volunteer voices are at the table or not.

Emergency services volunteers have always stepped up in the sense of filing gaps in services when governments — of every persuasion as we are non-partisan — either don’t or can’t provide.

And we should be very, very proud of the difference or local skills and knowledge we have delivered to communities in every corner of our great country.

But it’s not just the climate that is changing — the way decisions are made is too.

Emergency services volunteers need to develop a new set of skills to ensure we not only actively participate in the discussions about our future, but insist that our immense collective experience and knowledge receives the appropriate level of respect and influence over outcomes.

Climate change or not, the reality is people in almost every part of Australia have always and will continue to live with the very real threat of bushfire and our country is simply too big and sparse for any government to afford a fully paid emergency service workforce.

Bushfire Volunteers are essential for the safety, sustainability and resilience of many communities and what we have seen play out over the last few weeks makes it more critical than ever that we step up and make certain that no political discussion happens without us.

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