Australia — A parliamentary committee has criticised the state government for its slow and ad-hoc response to inquiries into bushfires and compensation for victims, while volunteer fire fighters still do not have some potentially lifesaving equipment.
The government also had failed to establish a state-wide fuel load database, a key recommendation in the Keelty report released 18 months ago, and adapt to the state’s increasingly dry climate.
During its inquiry into the state’s preparedness for the upcoming bushfire season, the Community Development and Justice Standing Committee found the government had responded to the majority of the 55 recommendations in two reports prepared by former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty into the Perth Hills and Margaret River fires last year and had increased funding to the state’s two main firefighting agencies.
However, there were several outstanding concerns. Advertisement
The committee heard “disturbing” evidence about the impact of the state’s drying climate on future bushfires, which would become more frequent and of a greater intensity.
The drier climate would reduce the number of days prescribed burns could be safely carried out to reduce fuel loads, causing them to become drier and able to burn more fiercely during a bushfire.
But despite the dire predictions no government agency responsible for fire fighting had restructured its bushfire preparedness plans based on a far drier South West, with plans seemingly “little more than addressing deficiencies” identified after past major bushfires, the committee found.
Moreover, the Department of Environment and Conservation’s climate change unit had been shut down due to budget cuts.
DEC was only able to achieve little more than half of its 200,000ha target for prescribed burns this year. Some areas had not had a prescribed burn for more than seven years.
The Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades told the committee fuel loads of about 8 tonnes per hectare would allow it to safely deal with a fire. But the average had soared in recent years.
“The average around one of the Kalamunda areas is between 18 and 32 tonnes [of fuel] to the hectare, and it really is a scary feeling,” the association’s David Gossage told the committee.
“That makes the actual threat to us as volunteers far greater. The radiant heat is higher and the heated threshold is higher, and so the potential for things going wrong is higher.”
Fire and Emergency Services Association chief executive officer Wayne Gregson told the committee front line services could be cut under the state government’s order to find savings worth 2 per cent despite there being 2 million hectares of tinder that had not been burnt for seven years.
He warned this could be the state’s worst ever bush fire season.
The committee recommended the government establish a state wide data base of fuel loads and prepare a strategy before the 2013-14 bushfire season on how the main fire fighting agencies should deal with a drier South West.
It also called for a review of the firefighters’ communication network after volunteer fire fighters said the new digital radios did not work when affected by smoke and moisture – typical fire conditions.
In some areas there was less radio coverage than with the previous devices.
Minister for Emergency Services Troy Buswell said while there were still “some challenges” with the West Australian Emergency Radio Network, it was “vastly” better than the previous system.
Volunteer firefighters disputed this during their evidence.
Government response ‘too slow, ad hoc’
Mr Buswell said the committee’s eight-week timeframe to complete and release future post-incident analyses was “way too short”.
“We’re very keen to make sure that from any major fire … that we learn from how we conducted that exercise,” he said. “I’d hate to think that we’d have to rush something.”
The inquiry was the first opportunity for victims of recent bushfires in Toodyay, Perth Hills and Margaret River to publicly talk about their experiences.
Their evidence highlighted the ad-hoc and insufficient financial assistance provided by the government, even in cases where it had been accepted that a government agency was directly at fault for the fire.
The committee heard even those who were fully insured did not receive sufficient compensation to re-build the same home they lost, small businesses were excluded from compensation packages and emotional stress was not covered.
“The amount of compensation offered bears little resemblance to the cost of replacing property lost to fire,” committee chairman Tony O’Gorman said.
“The committee found that the stress involved in negotiating a settlement, even where the bushfires are a direct result of the actions of a government agency, compounds the stress of having lost property and possessions.”
Many victims of the 2009 Toodyay fire had settled for “a pittance” of what they were claiming, while those who lost homes in the 2011 Perth Hills fire which destroyed as many homes as the Toodyay and Margaret River fires combined had to rely only on donations from the Lord Mayor’s appeal fund because the government argued it was not liable for compensation because it did not cause the fire, despite residents claiming actions by the former Fire and Emergency Services Authority exacerbated the damage.
It took the government nearly 12 months to accept liability for the Margaret River fire and lift a cap on compensation claims, which the committee found had caused residents to needlessly “suffer nearly a year of tortured and stressful negotiations with their insurers and RiskCover”.
The committee recommended the government prepare a consistent policy on how to equitably assist or compensate victims of major disasters, such as bushfires.
Mr Buswell said fires were “volatile” and compensation payouts to victims would reflect the different circumstances.
Mr Buswell said two weeks ago said this bushfire season had the potential to be the state’s worst in history but the state was more prepared than last year. The failure was in the forest areas.Advertisement
Following a 10-year strategy, ACT fire managers have created a mosaic across the landscape of different fuel levels, burning at every opportunity.
But forests have been too wet to burn this spring and the past two summers.
A network of 500 fire trails and strategic burns along the north-west urban edge, heavy grazing and extra grass slashing will create a fortress for the territory which forecasters say faces a higher than average risk this summer.
After a fire-fuelled tornado in January 2003 killed four Canberrans and frightened thousands more, CSIRO fire expert Phil Cheney told the subsequent inquiry the fire’s penetration into urban areas under extreme conditions did not reflect a failure of fuel management on the urban interface.