The State election is looming upon us. Perhaps for the first time, this election carries particular significance for the subject of bush fires.
We have experienced major property losses and loss of lives to bush fires in recent years which is in stark contrast to our record over the previous four decades. During that period, Western Australia emerged as a role model for managing bush fire risks and controlling bush fires when they happened.
This seemingly dramatic deterioration in our ability to manage bush fires was powerful evidence that emergency services reforms of recent years, creating a centralised control model while disempowering local communities, was fundamentally and fatally flawed.
The Ferguson Inquiry agreed with the voices calling for reform away from the centralised model promoted by DFES (and its predecessors) and supported in the past by the major parties, and even had some minor support within the volunteer sector.
There was seemingly unanimous political agreement between all the parties in support of the Ferguson Inquiry recommendations, including its most critical one for the establishment of an independent Rural Fire Service. However, lack of clear tangible commitments left sufficient ambiguity as to cause unease amongst the community.
The Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades has been one of the many voices seeking greater clarity and more tangible commitments from all political parties before the election.
We, like others, remained concerned that ambiguity from major parties would leave the option of a post-election shift away from the Ferguson recommendations, particularly on the matter of an independent Rural Fire Service.
We have been satisfied with the concrete commitment from the Liberal Party to an independent Rural Fire Service if they are re-elected. We have also been delighted to have similarly tangible commitment for an independent RFS from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, and WA Greens.
We await a response to clear the ambiguity away from the Labor Party, the National Party and One Nation.
The article below (abbreviated) was published in Farm Weekly and has publicly called on the Labor Party to match the Liberal Party’s clarity with regard to their position on an independent Rural Fire Service.
The full article by Mal Gill can be accessed at http://www.farmweekly.com.au/news/agriculture/agribusiness/general-news/brigades-seek-bipartisan-fire-support/2754701.aspx?storypage=0
BUSH fire brigade volunteers have welcomed Premier Colin Barnett’s election commitment to an independent rural fire service (RFS) headquartered at Collie.
They also called for bipartisan support from other parties, particularly Labor, for an independent RFS.
The Greens WA have already announced their bushfire policy and support for an RFS.
Volunteer firefighter sources, who did not want to be named, said The Nationals WA, Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party, and Pauline Hanson One Nation representatives indicated they could support an independent RFS.
But volunteer firefighters claimed Labor had been quiet on the issue and approaches to Opposition emergency services spokeswoman Margaret Quirk had not elicited a response.
They said they were concerned statements by Labor’s environment spokesman Chris Tallentire indicated he did not support an annual cool burn regime as a bushfire prevention measure favoured by rural fire fighters.
Without a clear cut statement from Labor supporting an independent RFS, concerns remained a potential Labor government after March 11 could simply make a RFS an arm of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES), which was contrary to Euan Ferguson’s recommendation in his fatal Waroona fire inquiry report, they said.
Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades (AVBFB) president Dave Gossage said an independent RFS had its support “from day one”.
“As we said in our submission to Euan Ferguson’s inquiry, to leave the control and funding of a rural fire service at FESA’s discretion would be just an insult (to volunteer bush fire brigades members) and a waste of time and effort,” he said.
“The association looks forward to bipartisan support from the other political parties on this issue.”
Mr Gossage said the AVBFB had no problem with Collie being designated as the location for a proposed RFS headquarters and training facility.
“At this stage, where it is to be headquartered is a secondary consideration – let’s get it across the line first,” he said.
Mr Barnett’s commitment was also welcomed by Bush Fire Front chairman Roger Underwood.
“WA needs a professional agency with a focus on mitigating bushfire damage to rural communities and working closely with DPaW (Department of Parks and Wildlife) on the protection of parks and forests from high intensity bushfires,” Mr Underwood said.
“We particularly welcome the concept of a new training facility to be set up as part of the RFS.
“For many years, we have advocated the creation of a centre of excellence in fuel reduction burning where land owners, shire staff and volunteers can receive specialised training.
“Collie is a good location, being central to the South-West region, where the values threatened by bushfires are highest.
“However, it will be essential that the new agency does not lose sight of the horrendous bushfire problems in the Perth Hills, probably the greatest potential disaster area in WA.”
A RFS was the first step in a “revolution in bushfire management” in WA, Mr Underwood said, and would need strong leadership from people with “a commitment to mitigation and real-world bushfire experience”.
“The days of trying to run a bushfire organisation from the city, based on the culture of the urban fireman, must be brought to a rapid close,” he said.
“If we have one grave concern at the moment it is the silence of the Opposition on bushfire policy.
“We do not know whether they support an independent Rural Fire Service, and we are well aware of the negative attitude to fuel reduction burning from the shadow minister.”
Emergency services advocate and past president of the Emergency Service Volunteers Association (ESVA) John Iffla, Bremer Bay, said Labor support for an independent RFS was one of two questions he wanted answered.
“I have been doing this (emergency services advocate) for a while and end my time (as a ESVA member) with more questions than answers, and two questions I particularly would like answered,” Mr Iffla said.
“Firstly, will Labor support the (independent) rural fire service and the review of the ESL (Emergency Services Levy)?
“Secondly, will Liberals and Labor give volunteers an assurance that they will be consulted in a meaningful way on the new structure.”
Mr Barnett and Emergency Services Minister Joe Francis visited Collie last week to announce plans to establish a RFS with a headquarters and training facility there if a Liberal government is returned on March 11.
Mr Barnett said the RFS would be independent with its own chief executive officer reporting directly to the Emergency Services Minister, but would work closely and collaboratively with Fire and Emergency Services commissioner Wayne Gregson.
Collie had sufficient size and infrastructure to support a RFS headquarters and training facility and was close to many bush fire brigade volunteers, regional DPaW staff in Bunbury and bushfire-prone local shires, he said.
The recently upgraded Collie airstrip would also become a base for aerial water bombing operations, Mr Barnett said.
Farm Weekly contacted Labor leader Mark McGowan’s press office, along with Ms Quirk’s and Mr Tallentire’s offices last Friday seeking clarification on the party’s position on an independent RFS.
No answer had been received when Farm Weekly went to press.