Heat on fire report

By Ashleigh Fielding | posted on January 10, 2019

SOUTH West Liberal MLC Steve Thomas has described the report into the maelstrom of fires across the South West Land Division eight months ago as “underwhelming”.

In his assessment of the 64-page report prepared by the Office of Bushfire Risk Management (OBRM), Dr Thomas also questioned the “bureaucratic blockage” that prevented improvements suggested by the report from being made earlier.

The report was published online on December 21 with an 18-page review from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA).

The documents identified a lack of landowner fire risk appreciation, inadequate firefighting resources, pockets of old fuel and “no one source of truth” of information as some of the points of contention during the fire event.

The documents specifically discussed the Chester Moonah, Torndirrup, Stirling Range, Peaceful Bay, Redmond and Napier bushfires that occurred across May 23, 24 and 25.

Dr Thomas said the nature of the report might have been the reason it was released in the lead up to Christmas.

“While the report correctly identifies the critical issues – those of inadequate communication between DFES, DPaW, local government and local volunteers; the need for additional fuel reduction burning; and better coordination of training between the various stakeholders – none of these issues are new,” he said.

“The report calls for improvement in all these things, but is stunningly silent on why none of this has already been done.

“The question remains as to why all of these things weren’t done already, and what bureaucratic blockage has been preventing this.”

The OBRM report review team, consisting of OBRM director Tim McNaught, Sandalwest director Kevin Haylock and fire and land management consultant Roger Armstrong, identified a total of 16 “opportunities for improvement”.

Top of the list was for the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, via the State Bushfire Advisory Council, to develop a strategy to support the reduction of fuel on land.

The report stated a trend of fire managers “abandoning” landscape scale risk treatments in favour of relatively small fuel-reduced zones around assets.

“The option of applying less fire into the landscape and being more heavily reliant on suppression was without exception seen as foolhardy and unreasonably costly by contributors to this review,” the report reads.

“Of all the fuel management options available, only planned burning (in conjunction with vegetation modification where appropriate) is cost effective at a landscape scale appropriate for the South West of WA context.”

Absentee landowners and bushfire risk appreciation were also discussed in the report, as the Redmond and Napier fires were the result of escaped private burns and destroyed more than 2000 hectares of land.

Emergency services minister Francis Logan said trying to reduce the threat of bushfire was not an easy task, but a necessary one.

“I would encourage private landowners to keep up their mitigation efforts, but to be extra vigilant when conducting private burns and consider whether other methods may be an alternative,” he said.

“If burning is necessary, landowners must fully appreciate the local fire conditions, have the necessary equipment in place, heed the warnings and advice of their local governments and notify them of their burn.”

Resourcing was also suggested as an opportunity for improvement, as contributors to the review said current resources limited their ability to safely achieve the required fuel reduction burn program.

“In retrospect, the review acknowledged that greater resourcing would have enabled the completion of the edging of the fire prior to deterioration of the weather,” the report says, regarding the 18,000-hectare Stirling Range bushfire that escaped control.

“This would have reduced the likelihood of an escape.”

The DBCA’s own review into the Stirling Range fire said it was “evident that prescribed burning has long been conducted in the Albany District in a manner quite different to the adjoining forest regions, using primarily local resources.”

It also stated the prescribed burn, which was meant to burn 3400 hectares, was conducted by hand – an unusual method for the area’s size.

“In other regions, aerial ignition is likely to be used for burns of this type and size and it is highly recommended for the future conduct of such burns in the Stirling Range,” the DBCA review says.

“It would be preferable for the conduct of large, complex and remote burns to have sufficient resources to be able to continue operations when necessary while standing down some personnel to ensure their availability to return to work the next day.”

The OBRM report stated contributors to the review relied on multiple weather sites and teleconferences to make decisions, providing too much information to choose from.

“It was apparent that there was no one source of truth and an increasing volume of ‘information’ available to them,” the report states, regarding Community Emergency Services Managers’ decision making.

“This ‘volume’ has the disadvantage of swamping decision makers with detail rather than providing a concise level of meaningful information with a high degree of confidence to inform their decisions.

“As more organisations and contractors utilise fire to manage fuel on the land, providing access to meaningful information that could assist in their management of fire related risk would be important.”

The full OBRM and DBCA reports can be viewed on the DFES website under the OBRM Publications section.