AWU leader warns of more bushfire tragedy ahead

AWU leader warns of more bushfire tragedy ahead

19 February 2010

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Australia —  Victorians continue to face devastating loss of lives because the state is not employing enough people to fight bushfires, the Australia Workers’ Union Victorian State Secretary, Cesar Melhem, told the Bushfires Royal Commission on Friday.

Victoria tragically unprepared

Mr Melhem said the state was “tragically unprepared” for another Black Saturday.

“The reality of the situation is that we do not have enough fire crews and field staff for clearing, burning and all the year-round preparation needed to save lives and property during each bushfire season,” he told the Commission hearing.

Safety of the state left in the hands of volunteers

“Instead the safety of the state is being left in the hands of volunteers. The State Government is abusing their generosity because it is more interested in cost-cutting than in protecting lives and property.

“The Department of Sustainability and Environment needs 1500 extra forest fire fighters, but the hard facts are that the number of full-time forest fire fighters has actually fallen from a shameful 257 to a low of 237 – and that was after the State Government promised to increase staff following the 2003 Victorian Bushfire Inquiry.

State Budget cuts funding

“Even more damning, the latest State Budget has actually cut the Department’s funding by $47 million.”

Mr Melhem said a heavy reliance by the Department on casual workers, such as university students who returned to their studies each February, and six-week training periods that were conducted during summer – when field staff were needed the most –
all left the state at risk each year.

Can’t fight a war with a part-time army

“We need a professional full-time fire fighting force,” he said. “You can’t fight a war with a part-time army, you need to be fully resourced.”

Mr Melhem said his union, which covers fire crews, believes the current annual burning target of 130,000 hectares – which the state has been unable to meet – should be tripled.

He said the  and was marred by a lack of resources and trained staff. He recommended a single fire authority, such as the old Victorian Forest Commission, be set up to tackle bushfires in Victoria and suggested it be run along the lines of California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

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