Firefighting costs out of control

Firefighting costs out of control

17 February 2013

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Australia — Helicopter water-bombing of bushfires has been blasted by Rural Fire Service volunteers as a waste of taxpayers’ money, amid claims that fighting the Coonabarabran fire may have cost as much as $35 million.

On Tuesday, Warrumbungle Shire Council will be given an update on costs of the fire that had a section 44 national disaster status, where the cost to the council, not including the RFS and aircraft bill, is expected to be about $10 million.

RFS volunteers also argue that failures to backburn effectively have left the state exposed to further disastrous fires after Coonabarabran, where the fire ravaged 53 properties and devastated 93 per cent of the Warrumbungle National Park.

The allegations made by volunteer firefighters include misapplication of raffle ticket sales. In one example, the NSW Rural Fire Service’s annual report for 2009-10 shows receipts of nearly $8 million resulted in only $348,000 – or just 4.4 per cent – dispersed to volunteers in firefighting equipment grants.

Volunteers contacted Fairfax Media after last week’s Sun-Herald story highlighting concerns from volunteers in Gloucester and staffing turmoil in Coonabarabran before last month’s fires.

Peter Cannon, the president of the Volunteer Firefighters Association, said the message from members was that more controlled burning would reduce the risk of devastating fires and avoid the need for high-cost firefighting by aircraft.

”If this plan was in place they would have been able to get into the Warrumbungle National Park, put the fire out and go home,” he said.

”At the moment you have got fire trails that are blocked off everywhere. It is virtually impossible to get in there unless you use aircraft, and aerial firefighting is only one tool in the box – it isn’t the complete answer.”

Robert Webb, pictured, a Central Ranges brigade captain in Oberon, said: ”This is definitely an area where the NSW Treasurer should be focusing his attention.”

Provisional figures from local fire managers suggest the Cooma fire south of Canberra last month, which destroyed 12,000 hectares, is estimated to have cost more than $10 million, with more than one-fifth of that in aircraft costs.

In one incident, a catering company in Coffs Harbour was used to supply food at a cost of more than $100,000, the fire control officer confirmed, after volunteers were told it was ”unhygienic” to prepare food in a woolshed.

”I am stunned by these figures and the use of aircraft is a major contributor. If you systematically remove more fuel [with preventative burning] the fires would not be of an intensity that necessitated expensive resources like aircraft,” the group captain for Cooma-Monaro, Mike Lonergan, said.

Deputy Group Captain Rod Young said the real cost of the fire would never be collated.

”This problem is because the RFS has become a reactionary firefighting force. It has really lost its way as a fire preventative force.”

Requests for a response from the NSW RFS Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, went unanswered.


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