Lessons From Victoria

 Royal Commission into the 2009 Victorian Fire Disaster

The Royal Commission presented its final report in August 2010, after a most exhaustive examination of the issues surrounding the February 2009 fire disaster, in which there was huge loss of life. The report set out a large number of recommendations aimed at preventing a repetition of this disaster in Victoria. While many of these recommendations are specific to the situation in Victoria, several of them are relevant to Western Australia. This item summarises those issues that have implications for Western Australia.

Refuges

Recommendation 4. The State introduce a comprehensive approach to shelter options that includes the following:

* developing standards for community refuges as a matter of priority and replacing the 2005 Fire Refuges in Victoria: Policy and Practice

* designating community refuges—particularly in areas of very high risk—where other bushfire safety options are limited

* working with municipal councils to ensure that appropriate criteria are used for bushfire shelters, so that people are not discouraged from using a bushfire shelter if there is no better option available

* acknowledging personal shelters around their homes as a fallback option for individuals.

The relevance of this recommendation depends on what is understood by the term refuge. As was well shown in media coverage of the Black Saturday fires, a sportsground is an effective refuge in a desperate situation where the only consideration is survival. They are effective only if everyone in the community is able to get to one. In the case of elderly people, this may not always be so. However, if the term refuge means a purpose-constructed shelter, usually an underground dugout, then the BFF believes this is a mistaken approach which should not be considered in WA.

Firstly, placing faith in such structures implies a defeatist attitude towards bushfires, accepting that they are going to happen and we can’t do anything to stop them. The whole thrust of the BFF website is to show the community that we can avoid large bushfire events by sensible fire management activities. Secondly, past experience in Victoria has shown that there are difficult issues associated with design cost and ongoing maintenance of dugouts for an event that may occur once in a generation. In brief, they are impractical. It is far better to manage the landscape to ensure that large bushfires never happen, and this is achieved by control of fuel loads.

Actions by local government

Recommendation 3. The State establish mechanisms for helping municipal councils to undertake local planning that tailors bushfire safety options to the needs of individual communities. In doing this planning, councils should:

* urgently develop for communities at risk of bushfire local plans that contain contingency options such as evacuation and shelter

* document in municipal emergency management plans and other relevant plans facilities where vulnerable people are likely to be situated—for example, aged care facilities, hospitals, schools and child care centres

* compile and maintain a list of vulnerable residents who need tailored advice of a recommendation to evacuate and provide this list to local police and anyone else with pre-arranged responsibility for helping vulnerable residents evacuate.

There is a mechanism for carrying out all these activities in WA, but little actually happens. This is an area where FESA and local government need to urgently upgrade their approach.

Powerlines

Recommendation 27. The State amend the Regulations under Victoria’s Electricity Safety Act 1998 and otherwise take such steps as may be required to give effect to the following:

* the progressive replacement of all SWER (single-wire earth return) power lines in Victoria with aerial bundled cable, underground cabling or other technology that delivers greatly reduced bushfire risk. The replacement program should be completed in the areas of highest bushfire risk within 10 years and should continue in areas of lower bushfire risk as the lines reach the end of their engineering lives

* the progressive replacement of all 22-kilovolt distribution feeders with aerial bundled cable, underground cabling or other technology that delivers greatly reduced bushfire risk as the feeders reach the end of their engineering lives. Priority should be given to distribution feeders in the areas of highest bushfire risk.

We observe that Western Power is already replacing some SWER lines with aerial bundled cable. However, the program appears to concentrate on areas where maintenance of SWER lines was due anyway. The priority does not appear to be given to areas of greatest risk, such as the Perth Hills region.

Recommendation 29. The State (through Energy Safe Victoria) require distribution businesses to review and modify their current practices, standards and procedures for the training and auditing of asset inspectors to ensure that registered training organisations provide adequate theoretical and practical training for asset inspectors.

In the light of the cause of the 2010 Toodyay fire, it would seem this is an area requiring attention in WA.

Recommendation 33. The State (through Energy Safe Victoria) require distribution businesses to do the following:

* fit spreaders to any lines with a history of clashing or the potential to do so * fit or retrofit all spans that are more than 300 metres long with vibration dampers as soon as is reasonably practicable.

We note that Western Power has a program of fitting spreaders, but whether this is sufficient is not known. That several damaging bushfires have originated from clashing powerlines in recent years would suggest that more work is required in this area.

Fuel reduction burning

Recommendation 56. The State fund and commit to implementing a long-term program of prescribed burning based on an annual rolling target of 5 per cent minimum of public land.

Recommendation 57. The Department of Sustainability and Environment report annually on prescribed burning outcomes in a manner that meets public accountability objectives, including publishing details of targets, area burnt, funds expended on the program, and impacts on biodiversity.

The BFF fully endorses these recommendations for Victoria and notes that there has been a comprehensive fuel reduction burning program in the forested lands of WA since 1961. The target of 5% is a figure recognised by fire management experts in Victoria as being too low, but is likely to all that is achievable in practice in the near future. The 5% figure has no relevance to WA as the forest conditions are quite different.

The BFF urges DEC to comply with recommendation 57, apart from that applying to impacts on biodiversity. Such impacts are well understood in WA forests.

Model effects on biodiversity

Recommendation 58. The Department of Sustainability and Environment significantly upgrade its program of long-term data collection to monitor and model the effects of its prescribed burning programs and of bushfires on biodiversity in Victoria.

While the upgrading of data collection is no doubt useful, the recommendation for modelling reflects a naïve faith in the ability of modelling to contribute anything useful to fire management.

Roadside works to reduce fire risk

Recommendation 60. The State amend the exemptions in clause 52.17-6 of the Victoria Planning Provisions to ensure that the provisions allow for a broad range of roadside works capable of reducing fire risk and provide specifically for a new exemption where the purpose of the works is to reduce bushfire risk.

Recommendation 61. The State and Commonwealth provide for municipal councils adequate guidance on resolving the competing tensions arising from the legislation affecting roadside clearing and, where necessary, amend environment protection legislation to facilitate annual bushfire-prevention activities by the appropriate agencies.

As roadside debris was a major factor in the loss of life on Black Saturday, this is a welcome recommendation and one that has significance for WA, especially in the Perth Hills region.

Research

Recommendation 65. The Commonwealth establish a national centre for bushfire research in collaboration with other Australian jurisdictions to support pure, applied and long-term research in the physical, biological and social sciences relevant to bushfires and to promote continuing research and scholarship in related disciplines.

There is already a Cooperative Research Centre for bushfire-related matters that covers most of the areas identified by the Commission. What it needs is long term assurance of funding.