Australia — Landowners could face stringent spot checks of their semirural vegetation, and local councils and State Government entities forced to reduce fuel loads on their land under a sweeping overhaul of WA’s bushfire laws.
Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Wayne Gregson, who is spearheading the review of WA’s emergency services legislation, says “people who own the fuel need to be held to account”.
And in a rebuke to councils that don’t prescribe-burn their reserves for fear of harming flora and fauna, he warned that failing to do so put “a very important species at risk – humans”.
Reduction of fuel loads is shaping as the next frontier in making WA bushfire-ready after the response of fire authorities to destructive blazes in Parkerville-Stoneville and Atwell-Banjup this summer could not be faulted.
This month’s Atwell-Banjup fire was intensified by fuel loads thought to be 20 years old in reserves managed by the City of Cockburn, which does not conduct prescribed burns because “they sustain natural habitats with fragile ecosystems”.
Under existing laws, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services does not have the power to compel local councils to reduce fuel loads, nor State Government landholders such as Main Roads and Water Corporation.
Private landowners, too, are neglecting fuel load reduction, with some mistakenly believing council laws forbid clearing.
Councils can issue work orders requesting public and private landowners reduce fuel loads, but complain they lack the resources and clout to enforce them.
Mr Gregson called for a consistent approach to fuel reduction, regardless of who owned the land.
“We need to have an increased focus on the way fuel reduction is managed and overseen and that people who own the fuel are held to account for reducing that risk,” he said.
“That includes State government instrumentalities, local government land and private land. Your state of readiness and preparedness would be much better enhanced if there was an overarching co-ordination and oversight of that activity.”
The Government is likely to have to choose between DFES as the agency in charge of fuel reduction or individual councils.
DFES will release its legislation review “concept paper” for public comment next month.
WA Local Government Association president Troy Pickard supported the principle of a uniform approach to fuel reduction but said the sector lacked the expertise or funds for the oversight role.
“WALGA commissioned independent analysis which put the cost at approximately $50 million per annum,” he said.
Local government was not in a position to fund such a cost without it having an impact on ratepayers.
Emergency Services Volunteers Association spokesman John Iffla said most of the reforms so far had been cheap to implement but it was time for the more expensive fuel load mitigation.
WA Urban Bushland Council president Mary Gray said weeds that sprang up afterwards threatened soil and plant communities and presented their own bushfire risk.