Volunteer firies ‘disenchanted’ and ‘disrespected’ by bureaucracy

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on hearings in front of the Royal Commission.

Volunteer firefighters are leaving the ranks in NSW and Victoria due to disrespect from city-based professional emergency managers, the bushfire royal commission has heard. Volunteer Fire Fighters Association of NSW vice-president Brian Williams said fire control plans overlooked input from local volunteers, which they feared put them at increased risk of harm.

“The Rural Fire Service has become quite a city centric organisation and there has been a considerable loss of control at the local level,” Mr Williams said. “Their [volunteer] input isn’t valued like it used to be when we were under local government and they’re tending to walk away and that’s very unfortunate.” Volunteers do a “a very difficult, dangerous job” and the bureaucracy should “give them respect”, Mr Williams said in a hearing of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements on Friday.Advertisement

He said a “growing feeling that we’re no longer important” had been felt across the Rural Fire Service volunteer ranks for a number of years and as a result “really experienced people are becoming disenchanted and they’re leaving the service”. Volunteer numbers had also taken a “worrying” drop in Victoria due to a lack of respect for their ranks, according to Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria chief executive Adam Barnett.

“We’ve still got a healthy culture in Australia for volunteering, and the healthy recruiting numbers I think lend themselves to say people want to volunteer,” he said.”But when you start looking into the reasons why volunteers are leaving and certainly those reasons from an association point of view, the dissatisfaction about how they are treated, it’s dissatisfaction about how they are respected and recognised.”

There were 65,992 volunteers in 1998 in Victoria but that number had dropped to 53,311 in 2020, he said.”Unfortunately we have experienced a significant, I guess, downward trend in the last five years and looking at the figures we’ve probably lost roughly around the same amount of volunteers in the last five years as we had in the 15 years prior to that. So it’s certainly a worrying trend in the short term,” Mr Barnett said.

Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades president Dave Gossage, from Western Australia, said volunteers had been “bullied” since local input had been diminished and administration of firefighting funding and regulations had been consolidated under the Department of Fires and Emergency Services. “The department said to us that ‘oh, you can have it so long as you come under our command and control’,” Mr Gossage said. “That is just blatant bullying and abuse of power to actually use that, you know, control of the money to get people to come under their command and control.”

Mr Gossage said the state bureaucracy created an “insulting” firefighting training system that ignored volunteers.”In WA a system was brought in that created pathways for the paid people and then they said ‘oh shivers, we forgot about the volunteers’ and shoved them on,” he said.

“But the way it was structured volunteers would always be subservient to the paid officers and that’s insulting when we have volunteers who are running multi million dollar corporations and businesses and mines and all that being treated like fodder.”

Glen Alice RFS deputy captain Tim Frew on his experience fighting the Gospers Mountain Fire

The Lithgow Mercury reported Glen Alice RFS deputy captain Tim Frew’s experience with the Gospers Mountain Fire. He spent over three months of his life dedicated to helping fight the fire that broke records as being the world’s largest forest fire from a single ignition point.

It was something like I’ve never experienced…” For 79 days it tore through bushland, destroying homes, shattering lives and killing countless wildlife.

Tim Frew and his crew of men were called to the fire in late October, early November 2019 and worked for the next three months before the fire was officially declared ‘out’ on January 15.

“It got pretty intense,” Tim said. “It came over the top of our place, my place backs onto the Wollemi National Park, I’ve got probably two kilometres of cliff face in my backyard and it came over right along it one night.

“It got pretty close.” One particularly scary night that Tim will never forget was when he got home at 9pm after working with the RFS and everybody in his house, including his wife and two children had gone to bed. There was a prediction for an easterly wind to blow in at about 11pm. The wind did blow in, right on time.

Read the rest of Tim Frew’s story here.

Bushfire royal commission: what happened when the bushfires hit Lake Conjola

The Canberra Times reported that a former ACT Emergency Services commissioner has told of the chaos as thousands of tourists were evacuated from Lake Conjola as fires bore down on the South Coast hamlet with little warning.

Three people died and more than 130 homes were destroyed or damaged extensively when the Currowan fire hit Lake Conjola on New Years’ Eve.

Major General Peter Dunn, a former commissioner of the ACT Emergency Services Authority and a member of the Conjola Community Recovery Association, told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements it was a miracle there were not more injuries and deaths during the frantic, unplanned evacuation.

People in the area had little or no warning that the fire, which had been burning for weeks at that point, would spread east across the Pacific Highway into the Conjola area, Major General Dunn said.

“The preparations for the evacuation were essentially non-existent,” Major General Dunn said on Monday. “It was a question of people literally throwing themselves into Lake Conjola.

Major General Dunn recalled some “quick-thinking” people organised power boats and jet skis to go to Conjola Park and ferry people down to the beach. However they had trouble doing so because of the shoaling in the river.

“The lake mouth has been a contentious issue and it is not navigable at the moment down to the beach,” he said. Once people made it to the beach, they were left there” for many hours and were literally on their own”, Major General Dunn said.

Read the full report here.

The insurance industry suffered “peak” losses totalling $1.861 billion from the “Black Summer” of bushfires 

The Insurance Business Magazine reported this figure.

Independent catastrophe research firm PERILS has revealed the final tally in its industry loss footprint report, which it based on loss data collected from the “vast majority of the Australian insurance market.” The figure also revises PERILS’ earlier loss estimate of $1.568 billion issued earlier in the year.

According to PERILS, the report covers the peak losses which occurred within a period of 168 consecutive hours (seven days) on Australian territory. “The peak seven-day loss period differs among insurers but generally lies between December 20, 2019, and January 06, 2020,” PERILS said in a statement. “For the majority of insurers, it is between December 30, 2019, and January 05, 2020.”

PERILS’ report comes six months after the worst Australian bushfire season on record, which impacted the entire continent and resulted in 34 fatalities and an estimated 18.6 million hectares of burnt land between September 2019 and March 2020.

Insurance losses during the New Year peak period were most severe in the state of New South Wales, accounting for 70% of the industry’s losses, followed by Victoria (17%) and South Australia (13%).

“The affected communities have been significantly impacted by these losses and are now facing additional pressures from the coronavirus pandemic,” said Darryl Pidcock, head of PERILS Asia-Pacific. “Our thoughts go out to those affected and we hope that they can rebuild their lives as soon as possible.”

Children invited to share their memories of the Green Wattle Creek bushfire

The Macarthur Advertiser reported that the Green Wattle Creek bushfire damaged or destroyed more than 30 homes in Wollondilly earlier this year and residents are still recovering from devastating blaze.

Wollondilly Council has partnered with the Wollondilly North Rotary Club to help the shire’s youngest residents who were affected by the bushfire. The Wollondilly Children’s Voices project will capture the voices of children and teenagers who were impacted by the fire to ensure that their wellbeing has been considered and their perspective incorporated into future preparedness and recovery initiatives.

Wollondilly mayor Matthew Deeth said it was important that children had a safe space to share their experiences. “I would like to thank Wollondilly North Rotary for providing the funding to allow us to bring this valuable project to life for the families of Wollondilly,” he said. “This is about giving children and young people a voice and encouraging them to express their emotions.

“Talking about and sharing experiences is part of the healing process for all ages. The information we get from this project will also help us to prepare for future disasters.”

The project will bring together a team of council staff, including a qualified childcare worker, a primary school educator and a practicing child psychologist. The children will be encouraged to share their personal recollections and thoughts of the Green Wattle Creek bushfire event whilst participating in activities such as painting, craft and play activities to express their experience.

Remove your old tyres – EPA

The Seymour Telegraph reported that fires, vermin and toxic waste that can contaminate soil and groundwater are just some of things that can be avoided by removing collections of old tyres, according to the Environment Protection Authority.

Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) says farmers conducting hazard reduction burns should also consider removing any stacks of old tyres on their land.

EPA North East Region Manager Renee Palmer says a pile of waste tyres is a fire hazard and a threat to the environment.

“You can stockpile up to 40 tonnes or 5,000 standard passenger tyres without needing a permit from EPA, but there are common sense reasons for most property owners to get rid of old tyres,” Ms Palmer said.

“A stack of waste tyres is a pile of chemicals waiting to burn; it doesn’t catch fire easily but if it is overrun by fire it will generate toxic smoke, and burning tyres can be very difficult to extinguish,” she said.

David Eisenhauer at Sounds of the Mountain Tumut ‘saved lives’ during Black Summer fires

The Standard News reported that a community broadcaster and former Junee man has been thanked for his extraordinary efforts during the Black Summer bushfires.

Station manager David Eisenhauer worked up to 18 hours a day at Tumut’s Sounds of the Mountains radio station as the Dunns Road fire tore through the Snowy Valleys.

He recalls one particularly harrowing day when a widespread blackout which left his local station as the only voice in the region while the fire bore down on Adelong.

“That one day, the only voice that we had was Peter Jones [from the Rural Fire Service] and we were on generator power and there was nothing else,” Mr Eisenhauer said.

“Everyone had a different theory of what was happening and where the fire was coming from and our job was to relay as basic as you can be, the information that saves lives.”

Mr Eisenhauer and his team were sleeping in the station at the height of the fires as they spent weeks broadcasting information direct from the RFS and other authorities.

“It was dark at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon … You don’t want to go through that every summer I can tell you,” Mr Eisenhauer said.

Mr Eisenhauer said while “everyone did the best they could” he thought communications facilities such as towers could be better prepared for the event of another fire.

“That’s already being started. We’re seeing communication towers in the region being cleared … of undergrowth,” he said.

“So if a fire does come, we can maintain those telephone service and maintain the television and radio services.

Snowy Valleys James Hayes said the work of the Mr Eisenhauer and his team had been “absolutely invaluable”.

“Not only was the station manager working up to 18 hours a day for 50 days, it’s right opposite the emergency operations centre and the Rural Fire Service guy could walk straight across the road,” Cr Hayes said.

Cr Hayes said the Dunns Road fire had brought to light the communications barriers faced by people in the region.

“A lot of them relate to mobile phone blackspots … Places like Yaven Creek that desperately need a base station for mobile phones,” he said.

“We were fortunate in the last round of blackspot funding to get some more towers but given the value of the resources up here … you really need protection.”

Mr Eisenhauer said people could “end up relying too much on electronic communications”.

“So many people during the fires didn’t have even electricity let alone mobile phone service,” he said.

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