Australia –– The risk of another disastrous bushfire in the South West this year has escalated because the Department of Environment and Conservation has completed barely half of its prescribed burns target, the West Australian group Bush Fire Front has warned.
Preliminary DEC figures show it achieved a prescribed burn area of only about 101,500 hectares in the South West during the last financial year – far short of its 200,000 hectare target.
About 7.42 million hectares were burned statewide up to June 20, according to DEC.
Bush Fire Front spokesman Roger Underwood said more controlled burns had to be completed to reduce fuel loads.
“[DEC] has done half of what their target is and a third of what we think they should be doing,” he said.
“They were already 10-12 years behind in their program and every year they are behind target, they go further behind.
“Fuels accumulate in the forests and the potential for more damaging fires and the likelihood of a serious fire increases.”
Mr Underwood said there had not been a big, serious fire in the region in the past few years.
“The Margaret River fire was a very damaging fire because the community was so poorly prepared but it wasn’t a huge fire in terms of the potential that exists in WA,” he said.
Mr Underwood said the DEC needed to put more resources and a higher priority into prescribed burns to ensure more controlled burning was done.
He admitted the DEC was not the only group responsible for allowing fuel loads to accumulate, and that landowners had to also accept responsibility.
“It’s private landowners and shire councils too,” he said. He said while the Bushfires Act was an effective way of controlling the risk of bushfires, it had not been enforced well enough in past years.
“It’s up to local governments and FESA to enforce and take seriously,” Mr Underwood said.
The DEC spokeswoman said the spring-summer prescribed burning period was curtailed because of a number of major bushfires in the South West and the Gascoyne. “This meant fire crews were occupied responding to a busy fire season for a considerable time,” the spokeswoman said. She said the inquiry into the Margaret River bushfire had also affected the program.
“Following the special inquiry into the Margaret River fire, DEC has been committed to reviewing prescribed burning processes as recommended by the inquiry,” she said.
“The scheduled program for autumn was affected by the need to review the risk assessment of existing proposed burns.”
The union representing DEC firefighters said it was not surprising that the target for prescribed burns had not been reached again this year.
Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association branch secretary Toni Walkington said they were “under massive pressure to improve prescribed burning procedures and respond to more fires with limited staff numbers.” “They are completely understaffed and don’t have adequate resources to do the role they are expected to deliver,” she said.
Ms Walkington said a lot of the experienced baby boomer staff would soon leave the field.
The Keelty report that was tabled in Parliament after last year’s Margaret River bushfires last November recommended looking at options to attract and retain staff.
“Unless there are incentives in place to encourage young people to work for DEC we are going to lose a lot of staff and a lot of firefighting knowledge in the future,” Ms Walkington said.