Farmers say there is too much Bureaucracy in Fighting Fires

This QLD article published by ABC Capricornia, written by Erin Semmler – 25 Sep 2019 is an all too familiar message: (click HERE or ABC logo for original post)

PHOTO: Arcadia Valley landowner Wally Peart says local fire brigades should have the final say when managing a bushfire. (ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

Farmers say local brigades must have the last say when fighting a bushfire

Volunteer firefighters in central Queensland say the bureaucracy involved in fighting a bushfire has reached dangerous levels.

In July, the state’s Inspector-General for Emergency Management released an independent review into the handling of major bushfires there in late 2018.

The report made 37 recommendations, with most focusing on communication concerns with landowners who were unsure of what they could or couldn’t do to protect their properties. 

But the restructure of Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) toward a more regionally-based approach continues to cause angst among some landholders.

The state has 18 Rural Fire Service area offices housing paid staff who support 1,414 brigades. 

Some volunteer brigades are more active than others; when a local brigade requests support, personnel in an area office send another brigade to help. 

Central Queensland primary producer Rowan Peart said it was great to have the extra hands, however new problems had been created. 

“It’s gone from a situation where everyone knows their place and knows what to do and gets straight into it … now we have to question who’s in charge, what we’re allowed to do, and what ramifications our actions are going to have,” he said.

“It’s brought a certain amount of bureaucracy to the fire front, which not a single farmer is happy about.”

“That’s never been a thing in the past, and it’s really scary to have that because when you’re dealing with a fire, you don’t want to have to think about those sorts of things.”

The ABC contacted the Minister for Emergency Services for comment but received no response.

PHOTO: Rowan Peart says having a national park as your neighbour is difficult, especially in bushfire season. (Supplied: Rowan Peart)

Landholder Wally Peart has lived in the Arcadia Valley for five decades and has been fighting fires for longer still. 

The volunteer firefighter said he had witnessed the way bureaucracy could undermine firefighting efforts during the 2018 bushfires. 

“It clearly demonstrated that some of the rules and regulations regarding the width of fire breaks just weren’t sufficient,” he said. 

“The new fire brigades, legislatively, have taken over … they manage the fire when it’s here.”

“It’s hard to have your experience overridden by a bureaucratic fire brigade that’s not as familiar with the area as you are.”

“We sure as heck appreciate the help, but I think they should leave it to the local fire brigades to make the decisions.”

A spokesman from the Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy said landholders did not need to get approval or notify the department before undertaking clearing that fire officers had authorised. 

“Queensland legislation ensures that fire officers have the power to authorise clearing wider breaks during an emergency,” the spokesman said.

Taking risks to protect property

Rowan Peart said grass was often viewed as a liability to the non-local rural fire brigade, but to farmers it was an asset they needed to protect. 

“If we let our properties get burnt out and we’re just left with our buildings, that’s not a win for us,” he said. 

“That means we have to completely destock. It will certainly affect us financially dramatically.

“The grass to us is our livelihood — without it we have no stock and no income.”

“It just means that we’re prepared to take risks that some people might consider undue, but to us, protecting our grass is absolutely everything.”

National parks are worst neighbours

Both landholders perceive national parks as a direct threat to their livelihoods as primary producers.

“A lot of people would agree that having a national park as your next-door neighbour is probably one of the worst neighbours you can have in a lot of regards,” Rowan Peart said.

“When they have a fire in their national park, you’re expected to go and help them fight it and heaven forbid you push over any trees.

“Their firebreaks are absolutely minimal, if at all; generally the firebreaks only start happening when you get to a landowner’s property.

“When you go into the national park and you’re trying to make on-the-spot decisions about what needs to happen, we’ve got a situation where you’re liable if you make the wrong decision, which is absolute insanity.”

PHOTO: Rowan and Wally Peart fought a relentless bushfire for days on end in December 2018. (Supplied: Rowan Peart)

Wally Peart said a lack of personnel and heightened bureaucracy was causing many issues for farmers. 

“[National parks] usually have a fire controller that’s way away from the fire somewhere, and once they’ve done their eight or 10 hours, he orders them to go and have a rest,” he said. 

“A lot of the volunteers have been on [the fire] for two or three days with very little sleep, and the fact is that even poor judgment is better than no judgment and nobody there. 

“I’ve seen it happen; just when they were going to be helpful, the outside fire controller tells them they’ve done their time, ‘go home’, and we’re left there to try and control their fire.

“The [park workers] don’t want to do it but they’re in trouble if they don’t.” 

Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch said in a statement that the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service was well resourced for fire management.

“At the peak of the recent bushfires, there were approximately 250 QPWS rangers deployed to the frontline across the state alongside other emergency services personnel, protecting property and our state’s unique environmental and cultural areas,” she said.

“The effectiveness of QPWS’s Good Neighbour Policy was acknowledged in the Inspector-General Emergency Management review into the 2018 bushfires.

“This review acknowledged the policy was a good example of a collaborative approach to cross-boundary management and recommended that a policy such as this one be developed to guide all landholders.”

PHOTO: Rowan Peart says there’s “a certain amount of bureaucracy” at the fire front. (ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

The first thing we need is harmony

Wally Peart said he would like to see the problem solved with legislative change. 

“We want as much cooperation as possible, and to me the legislation should be changed so that the volunteer brigades, where they’re active, their ability to take control of a fire should be a last resort,” he said. 

“There should have to be some really pressing reason why they do that.

“Let the volunteers make the decisions that have done all the firefighting for many years and have been fairly happy with the setup.”

Since the release of the review, the Rural Fire Brigades Association Queensland (RFBAQ) has been pushing for place-based decision making that would allow local volunteer brigades to have the final say.

Mr Peart said without legislative change, bureaucracy would continue to cause problems between landholders and external rural fire brigades.

“I don’t think any rural fire brigade was ever consulted and gave their approval of an outside group coming to take charge of the fires here and take charge of your machinery and all the rest of it,” he said. 

“I don’t think that setup is going to lead to harmony, I think it’s more likely to lead to conflict.”

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