Managing Fire in Western Australia


The responsibility for management of bushfires, and rural fire generally, varies with the tenure of the land.

Crown Land

The Department of Biodiversity,Conservation and Attractions (formerly Parks and Wildlife, formerly Environment Protection, formerly Conservation and Land Management) is responsible for fire management issues on:

  • State forest
  • national parks
  • nature reserves
  • conservation reserves

and fire preparedness on unallocated crown land (UCL) and non-metropolitan unmanaged reserves (UMR).

It has field stations all over the State and a long history, from its predecessor agencies going back to the former Forests Department, of fire management in native vegetation and exotic tree plantations. It has been a world leader in the development of scientifically-based use of fire to achieve a variety of management objects, such as forest regeneration, broad area fuel reduction and fauna habitat management. It pioneered the development of aerial ignition for broad area burns.

Over many years it has acquired great experience in forest firefighting and has a comprehensive fire detection network in the south west part of the State. If a fire occurs on one of the tenures listed above, it is DBCA’s responsibility to control it. Responsibility for fire fighting on UCL and UMR rests with the authorities.

DBCA has a well-developed, decentralised approach to firefighting and a well trained fire management team. However, constant organisational changes and failure to fully address the need for field fire experience of recent staff appointments is a concern.

Several other government agencies have smaller areas of land vested in them, but have no active fire management programs. These agencies include Landgate, Main Roads and Water Corporation.  There are also significant areas under the control of the Defence Department. Roadside verges are partly vested in Main Roads and partly with the relevant local government. They have been a problem for some time as they usually accumulate large fuel loads and can act as  “wick” to start a bushfire from, e.g., a road accident.

There is also a very large area of land, located generally in outback areas, that is unallocated crown land, as well as smaller areas of unmanaged reserves with no particular Government agency charged with fire management, where the role falls to Local Government. DBCA has been nominated to attend to fire fire management on some UCL, but given little additional resources for the task. Even the vast interior desert lands, the Nullabor, Kimberley and Pilbara  have a bushfire problem in some seasons.

We now have a very complex situation on UCL. Some areas are covered by mining tenements and many areas of the State are now under exclusive possession or non exclusive possession native title arrangements. While responsibility for fire management rests with Local Government, the recent developments in native title have made the situation less clear. Currently, there is confusion about access and permission to manage fire on such areas. In view of the vast areas involved, it is urgent that this issue be addressed by the State Government.

Private Land

On private land and pastoral leases the Bush Fires Act delegates responsibility for local fire management to land owners and Local Government. Each Shire has a number of volunteer bush fire brigades (BFB) who are coordinated by the Shire. The “vollies” have a long history in rural areas and have a strong tradition of self reliance.

Not only do they fight bushfires when they occur, but they also carry out fuel reduction burning to mitigate the impact of fires that do occur. However, as they are volunteers and all have jobs to maintain, their time for protective burning is very limited. In addition, demographic changes over the last 40 years or so have reduced the manpower available in rural areas, so that the vollies have struggled to maintain their level of young, fit personnel.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) is responsible for all urban firefighting, as well as the administration of the Bush Fires Act, which covers fire management in rural lands peri-urban areas: basically all rural private land. The agency comes from an urban firefighting background and understands little or nothing about rural fire management matters. At least, that is its track record over the last 15 years or so. There are encouraging signs that this is gradually changing, but we shall see. DFES is very good at urban fire control, but tends to apply the same approach to rural areas, where it is quite inappropriate. If a bushfire occurs on private land, or mainly on private land, then DFES manages the suppression activities.

The DFES approach to bushfires is based on two things: overwhelming forces for suppression and protection of life and property. It is a firm believer in technology and the use of water bombers for fire control, despite the fact that this approach has failed everywhere in the world that it has been used. The idea that massive amounts of water applied from the air will control a bushfire of many size is pure fantasy. Their fixation on saving property in a bushfire means that that is often their priority, rather than attacking the fire edge.

DFES wilfully ignores the experience of 80 years of real forest fire management in WA, that removal of fuel from a fire edge is the only practical way to stop a bushfire. To be sure, water bombers do have a role to play, but only in a subsidiary role to slow down the development of a small fire until ground crews can reach it, and under some conditions, to drench a building in the path of a fire front.

DFES is a highly centralised organisation, which is entirely appropriate for an urban fire situation, but completely unsuitable for managing rural bushfires. Trying to manage fire suppression activities taking place two hundred km away from a Perth-based control room is inefficient and practically unworkable. Centralised controllers lack critical local knowledge and remote, centralised decision-making is too slow. Rural fire fighting needs to be regionally controlled by people who know the area where the fire is located.

A serious shortcoming of DFES that has emerged over the last 15 years is its relations with Bush Fire Brigades. Whereas BFBs had a long history of local self reliance under the aegis of their local government, DFES has treated them as second class citizens after their own professional firefighters, and has tended to use them in a high-handed way. They have a risk-averse approach to fire management and have actively obstructed attempts by many BFBs to carry out fuel reduction burning. The interface between DFES and the vollies has become more and more strained in recent years.

But DFES has been very good in upgrading the equipment available to vollies due to their control of all funds collected by the Emergency Services Levy.

It also has to be said that relations between DBCA and DFES have been poor in recent years and the root cause has been the failure of DFES staff to acknowledge that they knew nothing about rural fire management.