Change wanted on fire risk policies

06 Feb, 2016 01:00 AM
Esperance farmer Mic Fels wants a change in fire risk policies.
We can't change the weather, but we could definitely do more to reduce fuel levels
Esperance farmer Mic Fels wants a change in fire risk policies.

ESPERANCE farmer Mic Fels wants a change in the approach to dealing with fire risk mitigation policies in regional areas.

His call comes after the Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades, Emergency Services Volunteer Association, State Emergency Service Volunteer Association and WAFarmers recently released a joint statement calling on the government to expand the terms of reference of the inquiry into the Waroona and Yarloop fires.

In the statement the organisations said "they were disappointed and surprised that the terms of reference do not specifically include an examination of the recent Esperance fires and that the previous inquiries referred to do not include the Black Cat Creek fire where lives were also lost".

"We are also disappointed that the inquiry will not refer to the findings and substantial changes following the 1961 Royal Commission, which made the greatest difference to the safety of our communities in living memory," the statement said.

"We all agree that the inquiry needs to be about building community resilience, safety, protecting lives and property from the ravages of bushfires.

"Therefore the inquiry needs to look at the whole way bushfire risk is managed in WA across the whole spectrum of prevention, preparedness, response and recovery and over a longer time frame than the past five years as set out in the terms of reference.

"This is about our community safety and nothing should be ignored in pursuit of answers and ideas for a better way forward."

Mr Fels, as spokesperson for WAFarmers for the Esperance fires, said the clear focus of any inquiry into the Esperance fires must concentrate more on preventing common fire events from becoming wildfires, moreso than what happened after the fires were already out of control, which has been the recurring subject of countless inquiries in recent times.

"As Australian farmers we accept that we will always have fires, and we know that we can deal with them under normal circumstances," Mr Fels said. "But there is no human possible way to deal with these wildfires that are a lethal cocktail of massive fuel loadings and severe conditions.

"We can't change the weather, but we could definitely do more to reduce fuel levels."

Mr Fels said there were some common sense practices that needed to be put in place to help reduce the incidence of wildfires, such as the Esperance fires in November.

"It goes without saying that we need a decent, reliable phone service in place," he said. "Secondly there should be 100 metre wide firebreaks put in place and regularly maintained between large areas of crown land and private property.

"And thirdly there should be controlled burning carried out regularly to reduce fuel loadings on the outer edges of crown land to provide up to a 10-15 km buffer zone.

"It is time we had an overhaul of mitigation practices and put some effective systems in place."

Mr Fels said part of the current problem with fire mitigation efforts was the 'green tape' and the time it took to get approvals to do anything. "I'm told that it is now almost a 100-page document to go through to get the approvals in place every time mitigation work is required. Part of any overhaul should include perpetual environmental and heritage approvals within the buffer zone, so that mitigation works can be planned and executed efficiently, and in a timely manner.

Mr Fels said there is a case for something similar to the old Bushfires Board to be established to take sole responsibility for prescribed burning and mitigation processes.

"This would remove the burden of mitigation from the Department of Parks and Wildlife, and give more control to local brigades that could work with local government to coordinate the prevention of wildfires in their regions, without necessarily having to do the works themselves" he said.

"The overarching Board could coordinate and support the brigades, and ensure there is consistency in how mitigation is carried out."

Mr Fels said this would take more advantage of local knowledge.

"I think that is one thing we have learnt in the last six months, there is probably a greater need for bottom-up decision making when it comes to reducing fire risk, rather than top-down," he said.

"There is no doubt it has been a bad summer for dry lightning and it is undoubtedly a factor in these fires, but we just can't accept the loss of lives and loss of property like we have just experienced when these conditions inevitably occur.

"We need to reduce the fuel loadings to stop manageable fires from turning into wild fires.

"People talk about increasing controlled burning, but history shows that under the current system targets are never achieved, and they are generally restricted to metropolitan fringes. To my knowledge there has been no prescribed burning program on Esperance Crown Land since land clearing began over 100 years ago.

"They say the only thing we learn from history is that we never learn anything from history. It's time to break that cycle and deliver some common sense outcomes to stop these preventable tragedies from happening again.



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