WAFarmers slams SW fire protocol system

22 Jan, 2016 01:00 AM

BUREAUCRATIC red tape stifling landowners' access to their properties during a bush fire has become a major issue for WAFarmers.

While one beef producer has initiated a petition for a parliamentary inquiry into the fiasco of the recent Yarloop and Waroona fires, WAFarmers president Dale Park said action was needed now to initiate changes.

"The current system is ridiculous," he said, citing delays and uncertainty in obtaining permission to re-enter the fire ground.

"The system is not working and the intransigence of the incident management teams on access only encourages landowners to avoid the road blocks.

"It's putting people at greater risk," said Mr Park, who is a fire control officer with Hill River Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade in Dandaragan Shire.

"They (incident management teams) need to recognise that life has to go on.

"It's a ridiculous situation when people turn up on one side of a roadblock to hand a food parcel to somebody on the other side who can't come out because they won't be allowed back in.

"With this fire we've been told of people who left to get vital supplies, including drinking water, were not allowed to return to their properties.

"It's not just the dairy farmers either, Geoff Pearson who runs a beef feedlot at Lake Preston in the fire area told me he needs 60 tonnes of feed a day.

"What is he expected to do?

"He can't let those animals starve to death.

"We need a system that works.

"We want to put protocols in place that will allow landowner access, particularly in relation to animal welfare.

"We would like to see them in place before the next big fire."

WAFarmers has called for protocols to be established to govern early access to future fire zones.

Mr Park and WAFarmers chief executive officer Stephen Brown raised the access protocols issue with Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Wayne Gregson at a meeting last Friday.

The previous day Mr Brown met with farmers in the fire area near Harvey, who told him stories of seeming disorganisation, with some locals claiming they were told at roadblocks they needed a permit to enter the fire zone but after travelling back to emergency centres and queuing for a permit, were told they did not need one.

Reports of up to 40 Alcoa Wagerup alumina refinery employees being bussed through the fire without escort to keep the plant operating as the land around it burned, have also angered farmers as well as the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union.

Harvey Fresh and Harvey Beef plants were evacuated and shut down for four days although the fire remained several kilometres from them.

Fifteen dairy farmers in the fire zone and all 67 Harvey Fresh suppliers were forced to tip out up to 1.5 million litres of milk because milk tankers were not allowed into the fire zone to collect or deliver it.

After milk tankers started rolling on Sunday evening and Monday morning last week, a dairy farmer near Yarloop still had a problem getting a tanker around a roadblock to his farm.

Other farmers have confirmed using back roads to avoid police roadblocks while trucking stock out to agistment after their own pasture was burnt because they were unsure they would be allowed back to get subsequent loads.

They have also used local knowledge to direct stock feed trucks around roadblocks on the way in to supply farms and feedlots.

Once landowners were allowed back, there were further reports of people manning roadblocks being unfamiliar with the area, directing trucks carrying feed supplies to use roads that had bridges not designed to carry their weight.

WAFarmers is not alone in wanting fireground access reviewed.

As reported last week in Farm Weekly, Waroona beef producer Raymond Hull has initiated a petition calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the Department of Fire and Emergency (DFES) management of bushfire emergencies.

In part the petition calls for a parliamentary inquiry to investigate "once the emergency threat of fire is over, the ability for people to obtain supplies for themselves and stock and return to their properties".

WAFarmers has joined the Emergency Services Volunteers Association, SES Volunteers Association and Association of Volunteer Bushfire Brigades in calling for a retired judge to head a royal commission-style inquiry into the fire.

But Mr Park said he was not prepared to wait for an inquiry to recommend changes to access approvals.

Mr Park said the issue of landowner access had been raised at all recent big bushfires, including Northcliffe, Boddington and Esperance.

At the Northcliffe fire, two men and a veterinarian in a ute towing a tandem trailer loaded with fuel and other supplies kept at least three dairy farms operating within the supposedly sealed-off fire zone for several days.

They used old forestry tracks to skirt road blocks to deliver fuel to keep generators running to operate milking plants.

The recent independent review of the Northcliffe and Boddington fires found that the different "culture, expertise and approaches" of DFES, Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) and local government in managing the fires contributed to "less than optimal collaboration".

It did not make a recommendation on landowner access although it was an issue during the fires.

The Waroona fire had "amplified" access concerns.

Mr Park said Mr Gregson had agreed to "maintain a conversation" on the issue.

"We will come up with some draft protocols and consult with others on it," he said.

Mr Park said he expected consultation would involve dairy farmers, beef cattle producers, feedlot operators, processors such as Harvey Fresh and Harvey Beef, the Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA), DPaW, DFES and local government.

"We realise there are a range of concerns, other than the immediate fire threat risk, that incident management teams have to take into account before allowing access," he said.

"But we are talking restricted access for landowners and vital services.

"They're not cowboys, they know the area, they don't want their trucks burnt, they will not get in the way of fire fighters or anyone else attempting to restore services.

"The fire plan for my farm, for example, depends on me being there to put it into action.

"It's the same for most farm fire plans that I know of, which is why landowners want to get back in as soon as possible to protect what might be left of their property."

DAFWA took on access liaison roles at the Esperance and Waroona bushfires on behalf of farmers.

It set up a helpline on 9780 6200 for primary producers requiring urgent access for stock feed, fuel, livestock transport or other vehicles and negotiated access approvals for them with the relevant authorities.

The same helpline was used for those requiring veterinary assistance for livestock.

DAFWA regional director southern region Neil Guise said the department "has consistently advised farmers and industry that the permit system must be followed as this is a matter of public safety".

"The permit system means that the risk assessment for safety is based on the latest information and is managed by those with the emergency experience to make the assessment," Mr Guise said.

He said DAFWA had helped raise priority access issues with the permit system providers and all emergency situations DAFWA was made aware of were resolved.

A DFES spokesman said the department had not initiated a formal permit system for fireground access at the Waroona fire, although permits had been issued at other previous fires.

The spokesman said that as far as DFES was concerned, landowners or milk tanker and supply vehicle drivers had to produce identification and convince whoever was manning the roadblock they were stopped at of their legitimate reason to enter the fire zone.



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