FIREFIGHTER SAFETY IN THE SOUTHWEST OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA
By John Evans
Presentation at the Eaton Seminar, October 2005
(NOTE: This article has been converted from its original form as a MS Powerpoint presentation for the convenience of the reader. The references to CALM have been retained, although CALM has now become DEC, the Department of Environment and Conservation)
Firefighting in forested country has always been dangerous work, but the risks to firefighters have never been higher, and they are getting worse. The responsible State Government and Local Government agencies have not addressed the changes that have occurred in an adequate manner.
What are the major problems in forested areas of the Southwest?
Forest Fuels are Heavier
* Very heavy fuels (long unburnt) now occur over large areas on some CALM and other lands. Burning rotations (years between burns) on CALM-managed forest land have increased over the last 10-15 years, from an average of 6 years to 12 years. Average burn size has also been reduced.
* Fuel levels have also built up on forested private land.
* There is a significant chance that a major wildfire or a series of wildfires will occur within 5 years. Records of wildfires in WA forests show that the number, severity and extent of large wildfires has increased steadily over the last 15 years.
* Many scenarios indicate a substantial threat to life and property in the Southwest. This has been exacerbated by the large number of new housing developments in forested areas.
* Over the last 10 years there has been a huge expansion of hardwood plantations.
* Unallocated Crown Land (UCL) areas are not being regularly burnt by the volunteer bush fire brigades.
Cooperation Between Agencies is Poor
* There is no strategic fire planning, hazard reduction programmes, or enforcement by local authorities.
* There needs to be closer cooperation between Local Authorities, FESA and CALM to reduce fire risks on a regional basis.
The Fire Suppression Resources are Inadequate
* The area of the CALM estate has increased but resources for management have not.
* CALM firefighter strength has declined substantially, and there is a shortage of experienced firefighters and machine operators.
* It is likely that CALM firefighters alone may not be able to contain a major wildfire under severe weather conditions. In a multi-fire situation the Department’s resources would be easily overstretched. It is likely that CALM will increasingly call on the volunteer brigades for assistance in fire suppression.
* Few volunteer bush fire brigade members have adequate fire fighting skills for operating in dense forests.
* Since the demise of the timber industry there is a greatly reduced pool of skilled assistance and suitable equipment in the region.
* There has been no fire management training provided to local authority wages staff who could supplement fire suppression forces.
* Very few LEMAC-organised joint training exercises have been run.
* Many private contractors engaged in the private plantation industry have not been trained in fire management techniques.
* There is a lack of adequate breaks for CALM firefighters. Some are on standby for up to 10 weeks continuously.
* CALM has greatly reduced the maintenance of the network of access roads in the forests. Many bridges have reached the end of their service life and require replacement. In addition, new wilderness areas created where any access is discouraged and a let-burn philosophy tends to be applied.
More Fire Training is Required
* Muller (CALM Review 2001) recommended that CALM cooperate with FESA and local authorities to “encourage a high level of forest fire training for brigades likely to be involved in forest fires”.
* Similar recommendations made in the Commonwealth Inquiry into Eastern States bushfires in 2003.
* Almost no action has resulted since then.
* Local authorities should arrange training of their outside staff in the Basic Fire Awareness course as a minimum. Better still, they should all be trained to Basic Firefighter standard.
* Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade members should be encouraged to participate in CALM burns, and to be paid a daily allowance for this, where appropriate. Activities such as this will build confidence and familiarise BFB members with CALM equipment and procedures.
* Potential contractors and employees should be paid to attend Basic Fire Awareness, or Basic Firefighter training courses.
* The Local Emergency Management Advisory Committee (LEMAC) needs to immediately complete fire suppression plans, conduct exercises and ensure emergency procedures are in place.
Forest Fuel Management
It is imperative that every local authority urgently carry out the following steps:
* Prepare a regional strategic Fire (fuel) Management Plan (with FESA and CALM) that is updated annually.
* Plan an annual Prescribed Burning programme for the Shire, including Shire reserves, and actively assist brigades, with Shire staff.
* Place fuel reduction orders on owners who refuse to reduce fuels, or prosecute them to ensure compliance with the law.
* Where there are significant areas of UCL land, the Volunteer Brigades should nominate two UCL prescribed burns each year to be carried out by the Brigades on a fee for service basis, in cooperation with CALM where relevant.
* Insufficient experienced/skilled firefighters are available to assist CALM in forest fires. It is dangerous to ask volunteers to participate in fire suppression on CALM land without adequate prior training. Involving volunteers in prescribed burning operations, on a paid basis, is an ideal way to impart the training.
* Innovative ways are needed to encourage people to gain skills needed. Use prescribed burning as basis to training.
* LEMAC fire exercises, where volunteer brigades and CALM can practice fire suppression exercises, are urgently needed.
* CALM needs to make a concerted effort to reduce the large area of forest carrying heavy fuels ASAP. Some constraints, such as smoke management standards, may need to be relaxed.
* Local Authorities to become more active in fire management, with improved cooperation between Shires and with CALM. As a first step each Local Authority needs to adopt a Fire Management Position Statement, and develop an Action Plan to reduce the level of fuels on private land.