Nearly nine months after the West Australian town of Yarloop was ravaged by a devastating blaze, uncertainty still reigns over the key element of the State Government’s response to the fire.
Former Victorian Country Fire Authority chief Euan Ferguson’s review of the disaster found fundamental reform of WA’s emergency management systems was needed, warning the state’s fire management system was “failing its citizens”.
The most substantial of the reforms recommended by Mr Ferguson was the creation of a WA rural fire service, something the State Government has now committed to do.
But details on that commitment are scarce, and a looming state election only adds to the uncertainty.
In announcing the Government’s response to Mr Ferguson’s report, Emergency Services Minister Joe Francis could not say how much it would cost to create a rural fire service.
Mr Francis also could not say when such an entity would be created, nor whether it would be a sub-agency of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services or a standalone authority.
In fact, the Government could not even say when it would know those things, with Premier Colin Barnett saying he was hopeful decisions would be made by the election but could not guarantee it.
Mr Francis said the Government would consult widely and conceded there were mixed views among volunteer firefighters, let alone the broader community, about the best way forward.
A standalone agency would likely require legislation, which will not happen before the March state election and would probably take some time beyond that.
Labor’s position is also uncertain, with leader Mark McGowan non-committal when repeatedly pressed about whether he supported a rural fire service.
“How it is badged I am relaxed about, but I support additional support for the regions,” Mr McGowan said.
Some reforms in place for coming fire season
While a rural fire service seems some way off, some reforms will be in place for this fire season.
Prescribed burning practices are changing, location transmitting devices are being fitted to firefighting vehicles, firefighters will be given identification cards and dedicated incident management teams will be created in advance.
An independent review into the emergency services levy is also on the horizon.
All of those are measures Mr Ferguson deemed necessary in the wake of a fire which destroyed nearly 200 properties and killed two people.
But his report painted a damning picture of WA’s emergency management system and indicated firmly the state’s trust in it would need to be rebuilt.
It found Yarloop residents were not adequately warned of the impending danger, that deficiencies existed in the bushfire management system and that WA’s citizens were being failed.
Mr Ferguson found the establishment of a rural fire service was the best way to deliver the necessary changes in “methodology, governance, resourcing, capability and focus”.
WA will seemingly have a rural fire service eventually, but for now will head into what is being described as a potentially “catastrophic” bushfire season with uncertainty over the central reform proposed in the aftermath of Yarloop.