Opinions are split on the need for a rural WA fire service ahead of a major bushfire summit, 18 months after the small rural town of Yarloop was all but destroyed in a massive blaze.
The Yarloop fire — which claimed two lives and destroyed more than 200 properties — resulted in the Ferguson inquiry, which last year recommended to the State Government a Rural Fire Service be created.
But more than 12 months since the public release of that report, there seems to be no consensus among stakeholders on whether an independent rural fire service should be put in place.
Emergency Services Minister Fran Logan said in April that the public should not expect a “rolled-gold” standalone service, which could cost $400 million.
Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades president Dave Gossage has challenged that estimate, saying that figure came from the Firefighters’ Union submission to the Economic Regulation Authority.
“If the Government is just being a mouthpiece [for the union] it would be very, very disappointing to see that,” he said.
“There needs to be wholehearted reform and frankly we need to go back to square base and start afresh.”
He wants the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) to be cut back, and funds diverted to regional firefighting services.
Union rejects independent rural service
United Firefighters Union branch secretary Lea Anderson has argued a rural fire service is not necessary.
“I don’t think the Government has the money to establish a separate rural fire service,” she said.
“If you’re serious about putting the resources where they’re most needed and that is, at the coalface, then you’d spend the money utilising an existing framework of regional offices.”
Ms Anderson said she was “sick” of some spokespeople in the industry being negative about the union, and was hoping the summit would initiate change.
Friday’s Bushfire Mitigation Summit. organised by the State Government, will constitute the first time since the election that heads of agencies, local governments, representatives of stakeholder groups and MPs will be in the same room.
Mr Logan stood by the estimate that a standalone service would cost $400 million or more, and WA could not afford it, but said other models were on the table.
“Two recommendations from the Ferguson report, one is [a] complete standalone model and the other is that it be a department or a subsection of DFES, there are other models out there as well being put forward by various other groups,” he said.
“I am going to be begging people at the summit to actually work together.
“Put aside these criticisms and differences and issues about which colour uniform you wear and just work together in the interests of the state and the people of the state.”
People of Yarloop still recovering
Mr Gossage, who is doing post-fire recovery work in the town, said the community was still getting over last year’s blaze.
“I would say we’re still providing support and assistance for somewhere between 40 to 50 per cent. It’s there every day,” he said.
Resident Kathryn Camisa told the ABC while she did not lose her home, it was damaged, and she lost just about everything else.
“Seeing the fireballs come over the hills was the scariest moment of my life — just rows of fireballs like something out of a movie, coming off the top of the hills,” she said.
She said she suffered an injury months after the blaze and believed it was brought on by stress.
“My neck collapsed and crushed my spinal cord so I was completely incapacitated for quite some time to learn to walk again, [it was] the trauma, a result of the trauma,” she said.
“Just the fact that you’ve lost your entire life, and your children’s possessions and your parents’ possessions and your grandparents’ possessions.”
She said she hoped Yarloop would bounce back, but like many residents in the area she said she believed the disaster could have been prevented.