The Ferguson Report into the Waroona/Yarloop bushfire
Submission to the Inquiry in response to the report, from the Bushfire Front
The government is to be commended for the appointment of Euan Ferguson to inquire into the Waroona/Yarloop bushfire, and for ensuring that his inquiry was professionally conducted. In our view this is the best-conducted bushfire inquiry, and potentially the most far-reaching report since the 1961 Royal Commission and the 1970 review of the Bush Fires Act.
Ferguson has offered the government two choices: make significant changes to systems and institutions, looking to build something that is more effective in the future, or stay with current arrangements, despite knowing that the current arrangements do not work, and cannot work.
His recommendations fall roughly into two categories:
(i) operational matters that can be addressed fairly easily by existing agencies, for example improved traffic control and access measures on the firegrounds; and
(ii) strategic and institutional matters, that will require community input and political decision-making and will take a little while to sort out and implement, but at the same time are absolutely crucial if it is not to be just “business as usual” in the years ahead.
In this response we have not dealt with operational matters. We assume these will be followed up by DFES, DPaW, SEMC and Dept of Planning. We assume that Premier and Cabinet has already put in place mechanisms for resolving these issues.
Looking at strategic and institutional matters, we have identified five key issues. These are discussed below in the order in which they need to be addressed.
Priority 1: Establishment of a State Bushfire Coordinating Committee (Ferguson Rec 16)
The policy development and objectives-setting by this body will provide the basis for the badly needed new approach that Ferguson (and others) recognise as necessary. It will provide independent oversight of investment priorities and independent monitoring of outcomes and provide independent public reporting.
We would like to see this body created immediately. Amongst other things it could also oversee the implementation of the Ferguson report. If this not done efficiently and expeditiously, it will make a mockery of all the work that has gone into it.
We do not consider, and nor does Ferguson, that the current system in which there is no independent monitoring of bushfire management policies, funding or outcomes is good government, and we agree strongly with Mr Ferguson’s recommendation.
Priority 2: Transfer SEMC and OBRM from DFES to Premier and Cabinet (Ferguson recommendation 1)
Neither of these important organisations are able to function independently while sitting within the Department of Fire and Emergency Services. In particular it is virtually impossible for them to monitor and report openly on the role, competency and culture of DFES in relation to bushfire management; all are serious deficiencies that must be speedily rectified. These transfers, while critically important, could be achieved with the stroke of a pen with no need for public consultation.
Priority 3: Creation of a Rural Fire Authority/Service (Ferguson Recommendation 15)
We agree absolutely with Mr. Ferguson that the Department of Fire and Emergency Services has not demonstrated a capability to protect rural West Australians and their assets from bushfire damage. A new agency, established as an independent entity, must be created to represent rural interests and to tackle rural bushfire challenges.
The alternative of a “rural fire branch” within DFES is rejected. This will simply cement in place the current philosophy of emergency response, and will not address the concerns of the volunteers or the problem of conflict with DPaW.
What is needed is a new culture, new policies, new philosophies and new leadership. The DFES hierarchy is rooted in the old culture of the metropolitan fire brigade, does not have the confidence of the volunteers, and has never been able to work smoothly with the Department of Parks and Wildlife. DFES has shown itself unable to deliver a rural bushfire capability.
The current hierarchy and existing culture and industrial arrangements have been given a very good trial over the last 10 years, but have not worked. This is amply demonstrated by one horrible bushfire after another, lives and houses lost over recent years.
Priority 4: Investment in prevention and damage mitigation (Ferguson recommendations 2, 3, 4 and 5)
Ferguson has correctly drawn attention to the way in which the current system favours investment in emergency response over investment in prevention, preparedness and damage mitigation. He points out that this does not minimise bushfire damage and is not cost/effective. In particular he has emphasised the threat posed by the fact that bushfire fuels have been allowed to accumulate to dangerous levels, and he points out how difficult it has become for people to carry out prescribed burning, due to the bureaucratic hurdles that must be jumped.
There are three issues when it comes to fuels management:
* Crown lands vested in the Conservation Commission. It is clearly the job of DPaW to attend to fuels on these areas. They know this, and have started to do a good job, but are still way behind schedule. We need to see (i) a policy from government that directs DPaW to place bushfire management as its highest priority for the allocation of funds and staff, and (ii) a clear strategy from DPaW as to how they plan to lift their game, clear the backlog of dangerous fuels and place WA’s southwest forests again under a regime of effective protection.
* Crown lands owned/managed by other government agencies or Local Government. It is clearly the responsibility of the owner/manager to manage bushfire fuels on these areas, but in nearly all cases the work is not done and there is no pressure on them to do so. We need to see a system instituted that requires government and Local Government land owners/managers to carry out fuels management, no excuses;
* Private land. Private landowners clearly are responsible for bushfire fuels on their properties. A mechanism exists to make this happen, via the Bush Fires Act ? but is rarely used. Enforcement of the Bush Fires Act has been explicitly ignored by DFES and most local Councils, but a new Rural Fire Service could pull this on as a priority function. On top of this, many people (and volunteer brigades) would like to do fuel reduction burns, but are discouraged by DFES and Local Authorities, or by bureaucratic constraints, from doing so.
In examining the problems of achieving an effective fuel reduction program, the Bushfire Front has identified a raft of bureaucratic constraints, many of which are self-imposed by the agencies and Local Governments.
We would be very happy to help finding ways of removing these constraints, or at least minimising their capacity to erect hurdles that make it hard for field staff and land owners to get on the job of reducing fuels in bushfire prone areas.
Priority 5: Allocation of the ESL must be taken from DFES
While DFES continues to control the ESL it will continue to be wasted, i.e. with investment into emergency response, rather than into preparedness, damage mitigation, training, rural fire management. Once the new State Bushfire Coordination body is established, they should be the body who allocate the ESL funds.
The Ferguson report is detailed and complex, but the five priorities listed stand out. Until they are achieved, little else of long-term value can be achieved. We urge the government to take up these challenges and deal urgently with them.