Residents petition for DFES inquiry

14 Jan, 2016 01:00 AM
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Photo by Courtney Waller.
Photo by Courtney Waller.

RESIDENTS from Yarloop, Waroona and surrounding areas have started a petition citing issues with the way the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) handled the fires in the South West.

Last weekend, angry Yarloop residents spoke up at a community meeting in Pinjarra claiming authorities failed to give them adequate warning of the fire's approach.

While residents appreciated the efforts of firefighters and emergency personnel, some residents had concerns over the policies DFES staff work under.

The petition was released publicly by Waroona beef producer Raymond Hull on Tuesday.

It states that residents who signed were concerned about the management of the Waroona and Harvey bushfires by the DFES.

"Your petitioners therefore respectfully request the Legislative Council to conduct a parliamentary enquiry into the operations of the DFES as they relate to the management of bushfire emergencies," the petition states.

"In particular, communication of imminent danger to the community, the limitations imposed on bushfire personnel and the community to make on-the-spot judgements for applications such as back burning or the use of appliances to immediately take action to control the threat of fire, co-ordination between government departments and volunteers.

"And once the emergency threat of fire is over, the ability for people to obtain supplies for themselves and stock and return to their properties."

Farmers in the bushfire-affected area had expressed concerns to Farm Weekly that not enough had been done to protect agricultural land.

As of Tuesday morning about 414 agricultural properties in the Yarloop, Harvey and Waroona areas were estimated to have been impacted by the fires.

An estimated 30,850 hectares of agricultural land had been burnt and 128 homes destroyed.

Farmers and transport operators have also been skirting road blocks to get feed to stranded animals.

Mr Hull said the petition was designed to give residents a voice and move for change given the recent impact of bushfires in WA.

"The main purpose of the petition is to give the general public the opportunity to get something done," he said.

"I have seen a lot of it first hand, I can't comment on what other people have seen or have told me, but the petition is a vehicle for them to express their dissatisfaction to government and get change."

Mr Hull said he would like DFES to review its bushfire management plan.

"I would like to see DFES adopt a policy like the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) in extinguishing fires," he said.

"I agree with the fact you have to protect life and asset but you also have to extinguish the problem, first and foremost.

"Agricultural land is an asset as much as anything else.

"The greatest asset to a farmer is his land, if his land is destroyed then he is kaput."

Mr Hull, whose property was unaffected, said he had witnessed DFES vehicles drive past spot fires that had jumped out from the main fire.

"They did not stop and attend to put it out," he said.

"Therein lies the problem.

"I do not have issues with the people on the ground – they are gods, they are centurions, it's the policies they work under I have issues with."

DFES released information at a press conference on Monday stating that residents had a number of warnings in the lead up to the destruction.

"The Shires of Harvey and Waroona were under emergency warning for over four days, from 10.25pm on Wednesday January 6, until 2am on Monday, January 11," the statement said.

"Yarloop was explicitly included in the emergency warning at 7.35pm on Thursday, January 7.

"Over the four-day period, the community was advised, every hour, to take action - either leave the area or be ready to actively defend their homes.

"People were also advised not to rely on mains water pressure as it may be affected.

"Telephone warning messages were issued to several areas within the Shires of Harvey and Waroona."

DFES said it will undertake an analysis of the telephone warnings issued.

"During a bushfire, DFES provides as much information as possible through a number of different channels including the DFES website, DFES information line, Twitter, ABC emergency broadcasts and other news bulletins," the statement read.

"The majority of the Yarloop community opted to evacuate in response to the emergency throughout Thursday, January 7.

"Doorknocking was undertaken by WA Police in Harvey on Saturday, January 9.

"It was deemed unsafe to send non-firefighting personnel into the Yarloop area on Thursday evening to individually direct remaining community members to evacuate."

DFES commissioner Wayne Gregson defended his department's response times to the South West fires after Yarloop residents claimed agencies were too slow to react.

Mr Gregson told Radio 6PR on Monday morning that everybody involved in fighting the fires did "their absolute best in catastrophic circumstances".

"Over the last four or five days we have been at full-on war with Mother Nature... I have been told we have not seen a firestorm of this magnitude before," he said.

"Let me assure the people of WA we had our absolute best people on this job; from not only our agency, but DPaW, from the police and all the local government agencies who are our best people doing their absolute best in circumstances we have never seen before.

"I'm very sympathetic to the Yarloop community and I'm deeply saddened by the deaths and the loss of the homes and the infrastructure of the town."

Mr Gregson claimed Yarloop residents were aware of a fire burning near the town for a couple of days before it took a tragic turn.

But his comments are at odds with long-term Yarloop local Dave Philips, who said "no-one said anything about Yarloop".

"Until the fire had gone through, they never mentioned Yarloop," he said.

"I got a text message a day and two days later about Harvey and out the back of Cookernup. But 90 per cent of us didn't get a text saying Yarloop. The old guys are hearing Harvey and Waroona (not Yarloop).''

Mr Phillips said there had been no door-knocking by police in Yarloop but attributed no blame to the local sergeant, who he said was doing his best to protect his house, which was eventually lost in the fire.

Mr Gregson said it was "incomprehensible" that Yarloop residents didn't know a fire was on their door step.

"Many people in the town chose to evacuate, many people chose to stay," he said.

"I don't think people recognise the enormity of the fire front and some of the first-hand accounts I have heard reported from the people of Yarloop talk about a wave of fire coming in over the town. This is not something you are going to put out with a garden hose."

FarmWeekly
Jacinta Bolsenbroek

Jacinta Bolsenbroek

is a senior journalist at Farm Weekly
Date: Newest first | Oldest first

READER COMMENTS

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14/01/2016 7:17:43 AM, on Farm Weekly

DFES is evolving into a bureaucracy which is cumbersome, takes little notice of local knowledge / experience and risks alienating BFB volunteers. A balanced bottom up / top down approach is needed in fire management and post fire access considerations for primary producers especially in relation to animal welfare considerations.

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