Australia — DAVID MARK: Devastating fires across South Australia have renewed calls for every firefighter to be compensated for cancer they contract through work.
New legislation allows for all professional firefighters to get compensation, but not all volunteers.
The State Government claims it’s too expensive to compensate them all.
But documents obtained by the ABC show the likely cost would be a third of what was originally forecast.
In a pitch ahead of the state election in two months, the opposition has promised to cover all volunteers.
Caroline Winter has more.
CAROLINE WINTER: Volunteer firefighters have been pushed to the brink this past week, after lightening strikes sparked hundreds of bushfires across South Australia.
Premier Jay Weatherill has thanked the many who put their lives at risk.
JAY WEATHERILL: An extraordinary effort, a courageous effort in the face of a very frightening fire. But also, their dedication and skill meant that many losses were averted. In particular there have been no loss of life.
CAROLINE WINTER: While praise is welcome, what many volunteers want is blanket compensation for work related cancer, which has been granted to career firefighters.
SANDRA FAWCETT: The role of the CFS (Country Fire Services) in the communities is a very valuable thing and I think we should be given equal standing. I know there’s powers to be that look at juggling what we should have and what we shouldn’t have, but given that we do a very similar role, personally I think we should have similar standings when it comes to health cover.
CAROLINE WINTER: Sandra Fawcett is a Country Fire Service volunteer. She’s one of the 13,500 across South Australia who is called on in emergencies like this one.
SANDRA FAWCETT: We go into all sorts of things, you know, structure fires, we don’t know what’s in there. We come across a lot of things that maybe the mets don’t cover in the rural areas, and so each of them have their own unique hazards. And that needs to be identified and if crew become ill, they should be compensated accordingly.
CAROLINE WINTER: New laws which automatically cover professional firefighters for 12 prescribed work-related cancers were passed in November.
Volunteer firefighters will only be eligible if they’re exposed to 35 hazardous fires a year.
The State Government said covering all would be too costly.
The ABC has obtained a report which shows the worst case scenario, where all firefighters were covered without qualifying periods, would cost $90 million.
But it shows a more likely figure is around $27 million, which would cover both groups with qualifying periods.
Iain Evans is the shadow treasurer.
IAIN EVANS: We will be provisioning for that promise, it’s one of our core promises. We think the CFS should be treated on the same principle as the MFS (Metropolitan Fire Service), so we will be in our costing document provisioning the appropriate amount for that promise.
CAROLINE WINTER: He says he doesn’t trust the Government’s modelling.
IAIN EVANS: We certainly won’t be at this point committing to that figure. We’re getting our own independent advice as to what the figure might be. And if you read the actuary report, it says in a worst case scenario if every single thing went wrong you might need to allow that figure. Well no one in their right mind would allow for the worst possible scenario.
CAROLINE WINTER: Attorney-General John Rau today met with the volunteers association on the issue.
JOHN RAU: I know the CFS volunteers have a view that some of the assumptions may not be correct. And obviously if that view is correct then it does perhaps at least call for a review of the actuarial information.
CAROLINE WINTER: He says that’s something they’ll look at if re-elected in March.
JOHN RAU: We are working this issue through with the volunteers. And they already enjoy, in South Australia, one of the better regimes for protection around the country. I think only Tasmania has a scheme which arguably is more beneficial. So they’re already doing better than volunteers around the country.
CAROLINE WINTER: While that battle is fought on a political front, firefighters continue their battle on the ground.
Milder conditions have allowed them to gain control over five blazes still burning across the state.
Brenton Eden is from the Country Fire Service.
BRENTON EDEN: The weather overnight has been really kind to firefighters on all our fire grounds. We had overnight temperatures probably around about 16 degrees and upwards of 80 per cent humidity. So, you know, a massive turnaround from the mid 40s.
CAROLINE WINTER: Four-hundred-and-fifty-thousand hectares has been blackened, 12 homes lost, along with sheds, kilometres of fencing, and about 1,700 head of stock.
Early estimates put the damage bill at $10 million.
Premier Jay Weatherill says financial assistance is available for those affected.
JAY WEATHERILL: Financial support in a couple of ways: a $700 direct financial grant. And then as the grants become larger, $5,600 grants, but that’s means tested, that’s for damage to buildings and belongings. Of course there’ll be losses associated with farms, and there is a Commonwealth recovery and relief scheme that can be accessed for these 200 properties if they meet the federal criteria.
DAVID MARK: South Australia’s Premier Jay Weatherill ending Caroline Winter’s report.