Bushfire management system failed citizens: report recommends creation of Rural Fire Service


The Yarloop Hotel was destroyed in the fire
The Yarloop Hotel was destroyed in the fire

A REPORT into the management of the South-West Fire was released this morning said the current system for managing bushfire in the state was “failing citizens and the government”.

Former Victorian Country Fire Service chief Euan Ferguson chaired the report and was critical of the current firefighting operations employed in WA.

“This analysis has highlighted deficiencies, not just in the firefighting operation, but also in the systems for managing bushfire in Western Australia,” he wrote.

“The system for managing rural fire has been variously described as, at best, ‘disjointed and disconnected’; at worst, ‘dysfunctional and broken’.

“Of particular concern were many reports that the current arrangements are failing the cornerstone of rural fire management in Western Australia: the Bush Fire Brigade volunteers.”

The January fire burned through 69,165ha of land, destroying 181 buildings and causing damages of about $155 million.

“This report must be a catalyst for change. Should there be no change, then this Special Inquiry will have failed,” Mr Ferguson wrote.

He made 17 recommendations for change as part of the special inquiry.

The report called for a Rural Fire Service to be created, similar to services currently employed in the eastern states.

Mr Ferguson pointed out there had been a dramatic increase in damaging and costly bushfires.

“In a hotter and drier world, the future will be increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous,” he said.

“The bushfire problem will not diminish.”

The January 5 fire

It was a hot, dry summer and Dwellingup had experienced its warmest year in 75 years of records.

The forests were full of extra loads of dry fuel and fuel reduction targets on privately owned land had not been met in 12 years.

Bauxite mining near Yarloop restricted planned burns and made it difficult for firefighters to access the area.

East of Yarloop were long unburned forests which were the responsibility of State and local governments, and community organisations.

The fires, which were named fire 68 and 69, were started by lightning on Tuesday January 5.

Fire crews, afraid they would be overrun by fire 69, were not tending to fire 68, which jumped the Murray River.

Fire 68 was unpredictable, burning through heavy forest fuels and steep rocky terrain, which made it difficult for firefighters to control.

It burned through Lane Poole Reserve and the State Forest on the Darling Scarp; it was massive and burned unchecked through the forest.

Above it a pyro-cumulonimbus cloud formed.

During the evening, lightning formed in this cloud, which started more fires on the eastern side of Waroona.

On Thursday morning, incident control was transferred from Mundaring to Waroona.

The Incident Management Team coming into Waroona was delayed due to vehicle control points and the active fire south of Waroona.

Throughout the fire, there was widespread dissatisfaction with traffic management and reports of an inflexible approach used at vehicle control points.

This resulted in shift handover briefings between outgoing and incoming incident management teams being done mainly over the telephone.

By Thursday morning, emergency warnings had been issued for Waroona, Harvey, Preston Beach and Yarloop.

By late afternoon, Yarloop had run dry; there was no water.

Between 7pm and 8pm, easterly winds increased dramatically and the fire entered Yarloop from the east.

There were 11 Fire and Rescue and Bush Fire Brigade firefighting vehicles and eight Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) tankers in and around Yarloop.

The residents who did not evacuate sheltered in their cars on the public oval.

Embers floated into the town and houses ignited simultaneously.

Tragically, Malcolm Taylor (73) and Les Taylor (77) died in their homes that night.

Over, the next 10 days firefighters extinguished hot spots and fire crews from NSW arrived to relieve exhausted crews.

The report’s 17 recommendations

Mr Ferguson recommended first that functions between the State Emergency Management Committee Secretariat and the Office of Bushfire Risk Management be streamlined.

Other recommendations stated that the Bureau of Meteorology and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre should investigate the prediction of cloud to ground lightning strikes and investigate the causes of and effects of pyro-cumulus weather occurrences on bushfire behaviour.

The report recommended DPaW reduce hazards through increased controlled burns and that 60,000ha per year be burned around settlements in the South-West and Perth Hills.

It recommended DPaW expand the bushfire mitigation grant scheme; this scheme relates to hazard reduction efforts on private land.

The report said that hazard reduction burns should be streamlined and fast tracked and for forests to be mechanically thinned.

It recommended an emergency management system be adopted that would use push notifications to send warnings to smart phones; also warning sirens should be installed in at-risk communities.

Local governments should identify, register and communicate places of bushfire last resort.

It recommended the Department of Planning work with householders to build bushfire refuges and community bushfire refuges.

The report said DFES members should be issued photo identification cards and vehicles carrying personal should have windscreen signage.

It recommended a review of the management and distribution of the emergency services levy.

Report recommends creation of Rural Fire Service

This rural fire service would operate independently of DFES.

According to the report, it should have its own budget and be able to hire staff.

It would have a chief officer reporting directly to the relevant government minister and in an emergency to the commissioner of fire and emergency services.

The service would have responsibilities and powers in relation to bushfire prevention.

It would operate collaboratively with DFES, DPaW, local government and volunteer bush brigades.