Bushfire volunteer force ‘shrinking’

Bushfire volunteer force ‘shrinking’

2 September 2008

published by www.theaustralian.news.com.au

Australia — Australia is facing the climate change threats of longer and more severe fire seasons with an ageing and shrinking volunteer firefighting force.

And the risk of loss of life and property is growing as the “tree change” phenomenon takes more people to leafy rural and city-fringe locations, according to Len Foster, chairman of the national Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre.

Mr Foster warned households yesterday they had to recognise that fire services could not be everywhere and could not protect every home.

He issued the alert as the Australian Meteorological Bureau prepares to release projections for the coming fire season that will show above-normal bushfire risks in southeast Queensland, northern NSW, eastern, central and western Victoria, South Australia’s southeast and parts of Western Australia’s southwest.

Graham Mills of the bureau’s high impact weather team said the nationwide threat was compounded in those areas by the drought and a build-up of fuel because of lack of fires in recent years.

Mr Foster, a former head of the Victorian Country Fire Authority who is attending an international bushfire research conference in Adelaide, said yesterday that more research and greater national co-ordination of resources would be needed to meet bushfire threats in the future.

Australia currently has no national plan to deal with intense bushfires, which Mr Foster said were happening every two years.

“We don’t think the fire services as they are presently arranged will be able to sustain the protection that is required,” he told The Australian.

Climate change conditions would force volunteers to spend more time at firefronts and be transported interstate to boost numbers on major blazes, taking them away from their homes and their livelihoods.

Firefighters could turn to technology with the use of more aircraft, particularly the huge Ericsson Aircranes, but manpower was critical, he said.

“We could never fight Australian wildfires without manpower,” Mr Foster said.

He said finding enough volunteers would become increasingly difficult.

“Each of the agencies around the country is having problems attracting and retaining volunteers,” he said.

“The evidence tends to suggest the volunteer ethic in Australia is diminishing.”

Mr Foster foreshadowed a need by agencies and governments to find ways to support volunteers with some financial measures, but said that ultimately the land management sections of government might have to employ firecrews to bolster volunteer numbers.

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