Outsourcing approach could be an answer to bush’s hot topic

Outsourcing approach could be an answer to bush’s hot topic

02 May 2014

published by www.heraldsun.com.au

Australia — FIRE is a hot topic in the country. A very hot topic. Long before Black Saturday brought its tragic consequences to Melbourne’s doorstep in 2009, rural Victorians have had to live with the constant fear of fire’s destructive powers.

Black Friday, Ash Wednesday, all terms that roll off the tongue. Yet for those who have lived through the terror of those events, they are more than just words.

They were defining moments of their communities, when loved ones were lost, survivors’ lives changed forever and dreams were destroyed. You can’t overestimate the impact of fire on the rural psyche. So you can understand the interest, even fascination, with the way governments handle fire. Government plays two central roles in fire — suppression when it breaks out and trying to prevent it starting in the first place.

The latter is the most contentious, because it is when philosophy and management really come into play.

What is the best tactic to prevent a fire? It is, naturally, another fire. Fighting fire with fire is not just a well-worn cliche, it is actually true.

Planned burning as a prevention strategy has become a major political issue since Black Saturday.

The Black Saturday royal commission recommended the Victorian Government burn about 390,000 hectares of Crown land a year.

The then state Opposition — now the Government — vowed to implement all the commission’s recommendations.

It is the planned burns target, alongside the issue of buying back fire-prone properties, that is proving the trickiest.

Even with the slippery tactic of including areas burnt in summer bushfires in its planned burns figure, the Government still comes up short.

The Department of Environment and Primary Industries has admitted the best it will do this financial year is 260,000 hectares.

And look about our soggy state. The window for any more burning this side of winter is just about closed.

The main problem for the Government is that it simply does not have the manpower and resources to complete the task it promised to do.

Planned burns are very labour intensive, with crews required to light the fires then keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t get out of hand. But that is a problem when DEPI staff are prevented from working more than eight hours in a shift.

Then there is the equipment, the dozers for fire breaks and trucks to patrol the fire lines.

It takes time and it takes money.

So there is no surprise that a document has appeared advocating outsourcing planned burns to private operators.

On the face of it, it is an idea worth considering. Much of the heavy work in fighting a bushfire on Crown land is already done by private contractors and their machinery.

And many of the people on the ground are employed solely for summer firefighting roles, so, strictly, are not DEPI employees.

The authors of the report, two senior DEPI officers, highlight that full-time DEPI officers simply don’t have the time to supervise crews at planned burns.

So better to leave it to someone who knows what they are doing — and wants to do it.

Planned burns and firefighting don’t fit into the public service model. I’ve worked as a firefighter on department fire crews and no fire I have been at has knocked off at 4.37pm.

The people who compiled this report have done so out of practical acceptance that the current model doesn’t work.

If the Government is fair dinkum about achieving its burning target, it needs to at least look at their suggestion. Any idea that could prevent a repeat of Black Saturday deserves attention.

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