A spat has broken out between the Shire of Dundas and Department of Fire and Emergency Services, with the local government refusing to “waste” precious ratepayers’ money fighting fires on unallocated crown land.
Shire of Dundas chief executive Peter Fitchat told the Kalgoorlie Miner fighting bushfires that did not threaten infrastructure or lives was a serious financial burden it could not afford.
But DFES hit back, saying the Shire was responsible under the Bush Fires Act 1954 and the State Emergency Management Act 2005 for fire suppression on unallocated crown land outside the gazetted town site.
We are taking a really strong stance because there was a myriad of costs hidden in what council did on State land with no permission and no cost-recovery potential
He said Shire records indicated the council had been paid in full for the past 12 years for fighting fires on unallocated crown land, but a rule change last year meant that was no longer the case.
“Our contracted works and funded works was impacted last year because last year we had over 60 fires at one go — that was the peak,” he said.
“We managed to get our costs back from State Government, but it was an ex-gratia payment so we managed to get $168,000 back; that was just pure staff time and associated plant costs.
“We are taking a really strong stance because there was a myriad of costs hidden in what council did on State land with no permission and no cost-recovery potential.”
DFES Goldfields-Midlands Superintendent Antony Sadler said there had been no changes in policy.
“DFES does not reimburse local governments for their staff salaries or overtime when they are attending local government managed fires,” he said.
“Financial support and assistance is provided for associated operating costs such as machinery and catering.
“This is not a new policy or policy change, the costs associated with emergency management shall be met by the responsible agency.”
Mr Fitchat said an official audit process had deemed the council “unsustainable” and he had an obligation to the Shire’s ratepayers and staff to keep an eagle eye on expenditure.
“Our bushfire budget is zero other than staff that does emergency management, but it doesn’t include firefighting on allocated crown land,” he said.
“With our new auditing process and our drop in population, we have been highlighted as a council that battles to recover enough rates.
“We are standing our ground, that is State land … we are not carrying that cost anymore.”
DFES yesterday had three bushfire alerts within the Shire of Dundas.
This is not a new policy or policy change, the costs associated with emergency management shall be met by the responsible agency
Mr Fitchat said 90 per cent of the time bushfires occurred on crown land which the Shire had no jurisdiction for or, therefore, access to.
“There is a whole range of issues and I think that’s why they’ve realised there are too many gaps in our old Bush Fires Act and I think they’ve come to terms that it needs changing but we’ve had no word on how that will look,” he said.
“We’ve lobbied really strong for this change because it’s unmanaged land and it’s 60 per cent of our shire.”
Shire of Dundas has a town volunteer fire brigade with about six to eight members but Mr Fitchat said they did not tackle bushfires.
Mr Sadler said DFES had assisted the Shire by facilitating an agreement with volunteer brigades and units from nearby local governments to assist during incidents.
“DFES has been working closely with the Shire of Dundas to assist them in reducing their operating costs,” he said.
Mr Fitchat said the Shire had “established a working solution now where DFES are using contractors, mainly pastoral lease holders to fight fires on unallocated crown land”.