With a warming climate, increased risk of extreme weather events is a reality that Western Australia will have to live with and adapt to. Bushfire, heatwaves, floods, storms and cyclones are increasing in severity and frequency, causing severe impacts for the health of communities and the environment. The cost of natural disasters in Australia is expected to reach an average of $39billion by 2050.
This calls for a significant increase in the capacity of West Australian emergency services to respond to such events. This must include the development of a world-class rapid response fire suppression capability across regional WA, and improvements to the way that prescribed burning is managed to address fire risk more effectively while maintaining natural carbon stores in the landscape.
Emergency services such as fire, SES and ambulances in our regions are under-resourced and over-relying on volunteers. This puts farmers and regional communities at risk from health emergencies and natural disasters.
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Some landholders are being denied insurance for farms and businesses due to the lack of fire services in the region. Many others are concerned about the risk that fire poses to farming businesses, especially long-lived crops such as orchards, plantation forestry, remnant vegetation and carbon farming efforts.
In 2019-2020 the WA Emergency Services Levy (ESL) raised $405million with only 8% allocated to local governments to fund their Volunteer Bushfire and Emergency Services Brigades. Emergency resources are focused on city-based services leaving just 5% of the ESL to support Bush Fire Volunteers. WA volunteer firefighters struggle to receive funding for operations or capital and have called for greater transparency and accountability in the grant application and funding process. There are calls for more resources for fuel reduction burning, greater local control, and increased support to attract and retain volunteers.
Volunteer Fire and Emergency Services have identified funding needs to train cadets and provide basics, including uniforms. There is also a need for upgrades to emergency airstrips increasing access to regional areas, and mobile phone towers to allow for communication between regions.
Prescribed burning is currently conducted in ways that are damaging to the environment and wildlife and is reducing the capacity of native vegetation to store carbon over time. Large areas are burned in intense fires allowing no escape for endangered wildlife and often providing little strategic fire risk reduction. Increasing resources for prescribed burning to allow a more strategic approach targeted towards the protection of assets and incorporating indigenous fire management practices is likely to produce better outcomes for biodiversity, carbon stores, and for managing bushfire risk.
Following the success of Indigenous approaches to fire management and controlled burning that were well documented during the recent devastating fires in the Eastern states, there has been an increased demand for these approaches from land managers and Local governments here in Western Australia. Aboriginal people require support and capacity to develop and train others in these skills. At the same time, the provision of Indigenous fire management services has the potential to become a source of employment for Aboriginal people, complementing the activities of existing volunteer fire brigades.
Shifting the focus towards an effective rapid-response bushfire suppression system will also require planning, resources, and ongoing support from all levels of government.
- Commission an independent review into the capacity of Western Australia’s regional fire services to prevent and respond to catastrophic fire events in a climate emergency, as has recently experienced in the Eastern states.
- Re-balance expenditure under the Emergency Services Levy Fund to increase support for existing regional fire services and volunteers.
- Establish a program to recruit, train, and provide equipment to double the current capacity of regional volunteer fire brigades and SES, including by recruiting volunteers from within the Perth metro area.
- Make a significant investment into rapid response fire detection using the best available remote sensing technology.
- Make a significant one-off investment into establishing a world-class rapid response regional fire suppression capability including infrastructure and equipment such as aircraft, air strips, ground units, and upgraded reliable water access points.
- Ensure that fire units and other equipment are locally designed and manufactured where possible to support local jobs.
- Establish a fund for rural equipment which allows for flexibility of choice in the equipment needed, fit for purpose and appropriate for the region it serves. In addition to providing equipment, like radios, that are not currently covered under the ESL.
- Upgrade mobile phone communications infrastructure to ensure connectivity and communications are maintained during a bushfire and other emergency events.
- Require industry to contribute to the increased cost of bushfire management and suppression due to climate change through a Climate Emergency Services Levy (CESL) applied to WA’s biggest carbon polluters to raise an extra $50m per year.
- Transition away from a hectare-target based approach to prescribed burning and towards a strategic, targeted approach incorporating indigenous fire management techniques and focussing on the protection of assets and maintenance of natural carbon stores.
- Provide a dedicated Indigenous fire management fund to:
- Support training of Aboriginal people by Aboriginal people in Indigenous fire management approaches.
- Establish local Indigenous fire management teams in regional areas, connected with regional volunteer bush fire brigades.
- Provide grants to landholders and local governments to support them to engage the teams in providing Indigenous fire management training and services.