Australia — In the last three years, more than 140 homes have been razed by bushfires in Western Australia.
In January 2009, clashing power lines were blamed for the the start of a blaze in which 38 houses were lost and many more damaged in Toodyay.
Seventy homes were lost in Kelmscott-Roleystone last February when a fire was caused by sparks from an angle grinder on a day when a total fire ban had been declared.
And last month, 40 properties in Margaret River were lost to a prescribed burn which got out of control.
These are not the first, and certainly not the worst, bushfires in the state’s history.
From January to March 1961, a number of bushfires, caused by lightning strikes, raged across the south west destroying 160 properties and literally wiping communities from the map.
The subsequent Royal Commission recommended giving local governments more responsibility for bushfire management, more resources for bushfire brigades, greater investment in communication equipment and weather forecasting, as well as more prescribed burning.
Fast forward 50 years, and the inquiry into the Kelmscott-Roleystone blaze, headed by former federal police commissioner Mick Keelty, made 55 recommendations about what should be done.
With the increased likelihood of fire across 80 per cent of the state this summer, there is an urgent need for change.
But, although there’s been extra money and extra equipment provided, including the leasing of a new water dropping air craft, many recommended changes will not occur this bushfire season.
A new water crane, known as Marty, has come online for the summer.
Marty can drop almost 10,000 litres of water in a single load, which is more than double the amount of the Type 1 water bombers and nine times the amount of the smaller Helitac water bombers.
It is being leased for three months at a cost of $3.8 million.
The new CEO of the Fire and Emergency Services Authority, Wayne Gregson, says the helicopter has been equipped with the latest surveillance technology for aerial intelligence.
“This aircraft is fitted with state of the art surveillance equipment, such as an infra-red high definition camera, laser mapping and a microwave transmitter which can beam real time pictures of the fire back to our operational management teams,” he said.
“This sophisticated equipment can penetrate smoke and pinpoint the exact location of the fire front.”
There is also advanced fire predictive technology being tested.
Then there is funding to buy five new fire appliances but these won’t be fitted out until at least next year.
In the meantime, Mr Gregson has approved the re-equipping of four appliances that were due to be mothballed.
The United Firefighters Union secretary, Graeme Geer, says the new equipment is welcome but at least 13 new tankers are needed.
And, he says there should also be better organisation of the resources already available.
“There are a lot of resources out in the state but they belong to a range of different agencies,” he said.
“On those days when it’s extreme and catastrophic they should be ready to respond at short notice.
“The same as the army, they have a whole heap of resources in reserve but unfortunately FESA has let that slide and we don’t have the reserve equipment to ramp up when we need to.”
The dysfunctional relationship and the need for co-ordination between the two main agencies responsible for bushfire response was highlighted by the Keelty report as the most serious issue.
The inquiry was told repeatedly that the relationship between the Fire and Emergency Services Authority and the Department of Environment and Conservation was “not collaborative and at times adversarial.”
It forced the resignation of two of FESA’s most senior staff.
Since then, FESA and DEC have signed a heads of agreement commitment to a united approach to bushfire management.
There have been joint workshops and training, as well as testing of interoperability of equipment between all emergency management agencies.
There are also major changes planned after Cabinet gave approval to abolish FESA and restructure it as a government department.
And, a Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner will be appointed, with similar powers to the Police Commissioner, who will be directly accountable to the Emergency Services Minister.
But these won’t happen for some time due to the need for new legislation, leaving no single person in overall charge.
There has also been a change at ministerial level.
Prior to the start of bushfire season, the then Emergency Services Minister Rob Johnson said the government and its agencies had ‘never been so well prepared’.
But, that didn’t stop houses being lost in the Margaret River fire.
Mr Johnson has since been replaced by Troy Buswell who, the Premier says “has the intellect, the drive” to do the job.
Decision to burn
There has been debate about prescribed burning as a method to reduce fuel after the Margaret River fire was sparked by DEC-controlled burns escaping.
The Keelty report looked closely at the issue, concluding it was ‘the most effective preventative measure that can be employed to manage fuel loads and mitigate the impact of bushfires’.
However, there is no aggregated information about fuel loads and burn programs in WA.
Keelty’s report recommended that FESA, DEC and local government jointly develop a single, integrated system for fuel load assessment and management.
It would be a massive undertaking and at this stage, a scope of work for a review into whether such a system would be effective is being developed.
In announcing the inquiry into the Margaret River fires, the Premier Colin Barnett said it would not look at whether prescribed burning is effective.
“This inquiry is not about the validity of prescribed burns, it is all about the decision-making process,” he said.
In public meetings, locals were not united in their opposition to controlled burns but their anger and questions were directed at the decision to burn during a hot and windy period in the year.
There has been intense scrutiny about what decisions have been taken at what times by the different agencies when houses have been lost in fires.
Having somebody in overall charge of firefighting may improve the situation but a Fire Commissioner is unlikely to be appointed for some time with the current FESA CEO on a 12 month contract.
Even though significant funding and extra resources have been allocated this season, it is the co-ordination and decision making taken at a local and state level that will continue to be deciding factors in how successfully fires are fought.