By Dr. Christine Finlay, (PhD, Bushfire Management, UNSW; BA Hons, Disaster Management, JCUNQ; BA UNSW)
In my PhD, I find that fires in buildings were common news events, but until the 1920s stories on bushfires were rare.
This change to bushfires regularly making the news followed new, no-burn government policy with ever-tightening restrictions on hazard reductions.
After the no-burn policy’s introduction, the findings of coronial inquiries based on evidence from the then Department of Bushfire Services gave rise to abandoning the strongest chances of putting out fires when they are at low intensity (dawn or at night). Now it is standard procedure to concentrate attacks when flames are too hot to extinguish.
Bushfires have burnt increasingly hotter and more frequently ever since. With increasingly serious wildfires to fight, funding to bushfire services grew. At its 1949 inception, total funds for the NSW Department of Bushfire Services amounted to a few hundred thousand pounds for a handful of staff.
Lobbying from former Rural Fire Services Commissioner Phil Koperberg saw annual funding rise from about $50million in 1994/5 to $69million in 1995/6 to $179.2million in 2001/2.
New legislation in 1997 gave more power over hazard reduction to other bureaucratic players, including the Environment Protection Authority, the then Department of Land and Water Conservation and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW.
This made it more difficult for volunteer firefighters to hazard reduce than ever before.
Under Koperberg’s protegee, Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, funding this year is about $343 million topped up by a blank cheque arrangement with the Federal Government, which pays for firefighting once a state of emergency is likely. NSW’s 2012-13 bushfire season’s blank cheque cost about $90 million under s.44 of the Rural Fires Act.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons has repeatedly said NSW is adequately protected, then worsening fires follow. Yet in past decades, with a smaller population and more bush, NSW was kept safe on a shoestring budget.
Australian Government has a statutory obligation to rigorously examine whether bushfire operations are effective in preventing the escalating calamities.
Coroners must look into duty of care, breach of statutory duty and if the event was foreseeable and should consider if criminal charges should follow.
Highly Paid and Powerful Hierarchies Control Bushfires
There are paid bushfire services in all states and the territories. In NSW for example, bushfires presented the chance for former motor mechanic, RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons to earn around $400,000 pa + benefits. Bushfires were also the means to a handsome salary for Fitzsimmons’s 2IC, Rob Rogers, a former supervising security officer. Such opportunities draw from different funding models in states and territories. In NSW, insurance companies pay about 74% of the Rural Fire Service budget.
The Australian taxpayer also pays extra money once a s.44 is declared under the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW). Section 44s are declared with the justification that fires have the potential to become firestorms. In the 2014-2015 bushfire season at times there were 100 firefighting aircraft deployed under a s.44 in NSW. It was only when there was a weather change that the fires went out. NSW’s 2013-14 RFS budget is around $343 million. (Note, the NT manages bushfires using Aboriginal knowledge so is the exception in the use of business models).
As well as fighting fires, bushfire services also have a large number of staff administering building and subdividing in bushfire prone areas. Bushfire services have two different methods for calculating flame intensity on the same terrain – one claims flame intensity will be lower for fighting fires and one claims flame intensity will be much higher for building or subdividing. A large body of evidence gathered since the 1950s contradicts both methods of risk estimate (see references [i] below). For the firefighting sector, underestimating risk expands business for bushfire services and their powerbases. For the development/building sector, overestimating risk expands business for bushfire services and their powerbases. The building code endangers some while forcing others to spend unnecessary amounts of money protecting their homes with steel shutters, fireproof glass and stainless steel or bronze flyscreens etc etc… In firefghting, downplaying risk leaves Australians at the mercy of firestorms with million dollar operations where only a weather change ends the catastrophe.
Bushfire service heads set up the multi-$million public company, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) in 2003. The company is funded by Federal money and received $14 million for the 2014-15 financial year (see references [ii] below). The company’s chair was RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons in 2013. NAFC is currently lobbying Federal Government for more funding by citing the growth of bushfire destruction. NAFC states its aims as coordinating interstate and territory aerial firefighting.
Aerial contractors must have NAFC accept them as tenders. NAFC and other bushfire service power bases also control bushfire research funding. RFS Commissioner Phil Koperberg and Country Fire Authority Chairman Len Foster set up NAFC in 2003 and it is located on the same floor and next door to the Natural Hazards and Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre and the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authority (AFAC) at 340 Albert Street, Melbourne. NAFC paid AFAC support wages of $725,531 in its 2013 financial year. NAFC also received $9,082,398 for supply agreement disbursements and $339,000 from its “members” in 2013. There is no explanation of who these members are on its website.
Bushfire service heads also set up another multi-$million public company, the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authority (AFAC). RFS Commissioner Phil Koperberg and Country Fire Authority Chairman Len Foster set up the public company in 2001. Australians paid the company $3,528,787 last financial year (see references [iii] below). AFAC states its aims as administering emergencies/disasters. As well as money from the Federal Government through NAFC, AFAC is also funded by member subscriptions and “trading transactions”. It has bushfire heads and other emergency management heads on its council.
Richard Alder now of NAFC, on secondment from the Victorian Country Fire Authority, set up the original Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) in 2001. This centre controlled bushfire research funding and direction. At the outset, AFAC decided the CRC’s funding. The CRC’s office was next door and on the same floor as NAFC and AFAC at 340 Albert Street, Melbourne. The CRC has been restructured to become the $230 million federally funded Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. Bushfire services, AFAC and NAFC control the new research centre’s funding, which is still in its 340 Albert Street office next door to AFAC and NAFC.
Fire Protection Association Australia (FPAA) controls consultants assessing bushfire risks in Development Applications for building and subdividing in bushfire prone areas. The FPAA charges its members upwards from about $600 pa to work as consultants doing bushfire risk assessments. Membership also entails public liability insurance and completion of courses run by various tertiary institutions and complying with bushfire service guidelines. The University of Western Sydney’s Graduate Diploma in Design for Bushfires costs about $10,000. The University of Western Sydney awarded Phil Koperberg an honorary doctorate (PhD) in 2003. Bushfire Risk Consultants administer guidelines for bushfire risk that calculate risks as much higher than the risks firefighting agencies claim when fighting fires. Bushfire service staff administer Development Applications and bushfirefighting under contradictory guidelines. A large body of evidence gathered since the 1950s contradicts these guidelines (see references [iv] below). The FPAA was established in 1925.
Bushfire services control funding of university departments and CSIRO in areas including Agriculture, Environmental Science, Botany, Bushfire Science, Social Science, Forestry and Emergency Response.
Private contractors such as Chubb Australasia, Erickson Aircranes and Fire and Safety Australia rely on AFAC, NAFC and the bushfire services to accept their tenders(see references [v] below). This puts bushfire service hierarchy in control by providing handsome incomes – the worse the fires the more income.
The Australian Government Bushfire Advisory Committee. Former CFA Chairman Len Foster set up this body and was previously one of its chairs. It advises on bushfires, research funding and directions (see references [vi] below).
Bushfire Recovery Committees, such as the Blue Mountains Bushfire Recovery Committee, chaired until recently by former RFS Commissioner Phil Koperberg with $ 12.8 million in federal funding. These committees state their aims as helping victim and community recovery.
The Council of Australian Volunteer Fire Associations (CAVFA) created in 2013 by the founder of the NSW Rural Fire Service, Phil Koperberg. Phil Koperberg is CAVFA Executive Director. CAFVA states its aims as a body to unite volunteer firefighters. BUT CAVFA refuses to allow membership to the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association (VFFA), which was set up to protect volunteers from retribution for going public that the firestorm crisis can be ended cheaply. CAVFA is currently lobbying Federal Government for input into the control of bushfire research funding and direction.
The Independent Hazard Reduction Audit Committee – In 2011 in NSW, the new Coalition Government agreed to set up an independent committee to prioritise areas for hazard reduction, in consultation with volunteer firefighters. However the committee only allowed one volunteer to participate. The rest of the purportedly independent committee consists of emergency service paid hierarchy and two academics funded by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre and the RFS. The committee’s panel is:
- Mr Les Tree, Chief Executive Officer, Ministry for Police and Emergency Services (Chair).
- Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, NSW Rural Fire Service.
- Mr Brian McKinlay, President, NSW Rural Fire Service Association.
- Professor Ross Bradstock, Director, Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong. In 2007, Professor Bradstock gained control of over $1.25 million over five years to establish the Centre. The NSW RFS paid half of this $1.25 million. Bradstock was also made Professor of Bushfire Management in 2007. In 2012-13, the RFS contributed about $1 million to university research on bushfires, which included the above grant to the University of Wollongong. Bradstock’s Centre also receives funding through the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.
- Dr Kevin Tolhurst, Department of Forest Ecosystem Science, University of Melbourne. Like Professor Bradstock, bushfire services have continually funded Dr Tolhurst. He was co developer of a mathematical formula used in Australian Standard 3959-2009 to calculate flame potential for building and subdividing in bushfire prone areas. Dr Tolhurst’s formula uses highly complex calculus and takes several pages to calculate. The formula adds assumptions to redo a scientifically tested and proven formula that was easy to do. Tolhurst’s calculation for flame intensity differs to risk models of firefighting arms of the paid bushfire services where risk is said to be much lower. Even though he advises on both building and firefighting standards, Dr Tolhurst does not apparently see a problem in the discrepancy between the two forms of risk calculation. Dr Tolhurst’s formula replaced an easy to use equation developed from laboratory tests measuring the relationship between flame intensity, fuel load and fire’s rate of spread. To read about what people face building or subdividing in bushfire prone areas please click “Bushfire building codes burning your cash” on the top left menu bar.
- Mr Brian Williams, President, Volunteer Fire Fighters Association (Sole Volunteer).
The Nature Conservation Council, which received $115, 485 from the RFS in 2012-13 and $111,796 in 2011-12.
[i] See McArthy, GJ; Tolhurst, KG & Chatto, K (1999) Overall Hazard Guide 3rd edn Natural Resources and Environment page 13; Gould, JS, McCaw, WL, Cheney, NP, Ellis, PF & Matthews, S (2007) Field Guide Fuel Assessment and Fire Behaviour Prediction in Dry Eucalypt Forest Australia: Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Department of Environment & Conservation, Western Australia; CSIRO (2003) submission to A Nation Charred: Inquiry into the Recent Australian Bushfires Canberra: Parliament of Australia; Cheney, Phil & Sullivan, Andrew (2008) GRASSFIRES Fuel, weather and fire behaviour 2n edn. China; CSIRO Publishing & Gould, JS; McCaw, Wl; Cheney, N, Peter; Ellis, PF; Knight, IK & Sullivan, Andrew, L (2008) Project Vesta Fire in Dry Forest Fuel Structure Fuel Dynamics and Fire Behaviour CSIRO Publishing Retrieved January 31 2014 from http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/5993.htm
[ii] See National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) (2013) Annual Report Retrieved May 12 2014 from http://www.nafc.org.au/portal/DesktopModules/ViewDocument.aspx?DocumentID=294
[iii] See Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Council (n.d.)Retrieved May 12 2014 from http://www.bnhcrc.com.au/
[iv] See McArthy, GJ; Tolhurst, KG & Chatto, K (1999) Overall Hazard Guide 3rd edn Natural Resources and Environment page 13; Gould, JS, McCaw, WL, Cheney, NP, Ellis, PF & Matthews, S (2007) Field Guide Fuel Assessment and Fire Behaviour Prediction in Dry Eucalypt Forest Australia: Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Department of Environment & Conservation, Western Australia; CSIRO (2003) submission to A Nation Charred: Inquiry into the Recent Australian Bushfires Canberra: Parliament of Australia; Cheney, Phil & Sullivan, Andrew (2008) GRASSFIRES Fuel, weather and fire behaviour 2n edn. China; CSIRO Publishing & Gould, JS; McCaw, Wl; Cheney, N, Peter; Ellis, PF; Knight, IK & Sullivan, Andrew, L (2008) Project Vesta Fire in Dry Forest Fuel Structure Fuel Dynamics and Fire Behaviour CSIRO Publishing Retrieved January 31 2014 from http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/5993.htm
[v] See Fire and Safety Australia (n.d.) Retrieved May 12 2014 from http://www.fireandsafetyaustralia.com.au/
[vi] Bushfire CRC (n.d.) Website Retrieved May 12 2014 from http://www.bushfirecrc.com/about/governing-board