WA volunteer firefighters believe the amount of people and resources used to fight bushfires around the state may be significantly under-represented through a lack of uniformity in record-keeping by local governments.
In late January, both volunteer fire brigades and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services firefighters worked around the clock to stop a raging bushfire in WA’s South West.
The Shire of Kojonup took control of management of the blaze near Ryansbrook and over the course of January 23 the fire destroyed more than 2000 hectares of bushland and spanned about 12 kilometres.
According to Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades president Dave Gossage, hundreds of locals turned out to help protect the community.
“At the height of the fire there were well over 200 people working to control it,” he said.
Firefighters and locals worked into the night to make sure the blaze was properly contained and extinguished, and an AVBFB review later found the amount of resources used to control the blaze had well exceeded those that had been available to volunteer crews.
“Some of them [helping were] not registered volunteers, but [others turned out] … with their own private firefighting trucks, graders, bulldozers, wheeled loader and even an eight-by-eight, 10,000-litre Oshkosh vehicle imported from Canada,” Mr Gossage said.
Therein lies the problem, according to Mr Gossage.
While the Kojonup fire was large and caused significant damage, many of those fighting it were not registered volunteers with the department.
As a result, it was difficult to track how many volunteers actually turned out to help and the scale of resources needed to protect the community from the threat.
“There is still no legal requirement for details of local government-controlled incidents to be recorded by the department,” Mr Gossage said.
And while the department records as much as it can in as much detail as possible, Mr Gossage said the true scale of the Kojonup fire may never be recorded.
“Incidents like (Kojonup) demonstrate the fact that official statistics under-represent the amount of work our volunteers donate to our communities and (we) constantly urge those making decisions about funding and resourcing to always consider this,” he said.
DFES assistant commissioner of country operations Graham Swift said correct record-keeping was up to the bushfire’s manager.
“Recording attendance at incidents is the responsibility of the agency managing the fire. In this case, the Shire of Kojonup was the managing agency at the fire on January 23 in Ryansbrook,” he said.
“It is the responsibility of the agency managing the incident to record the resources and number of people utilised.”
And while DFES records the attendance of all career and volunteer fire and emergency brigades, groups and units at all its own incidents, Mr Gossage said the same kind of care was difficult to come by in dozens of WA’s shires.
“There are so many different local governments, each with their own unique needs and processes,” he said.
“There currently isn’t one standardised volunteer management system and consequently some records are more detailed and available than others.”
“Many incidents like this occur every year with little or no awareness of city-based departments or media.”
The AVBFB receives about $120,000 a year from the state government to help fund its efforts in regional communities, and has long advocated for a separate rural fire service.
It has now also developed a volunteer management system with Australian risk management company Swiftworks, which they are attempting to roll out to local governments in a bid to manage future bushfire emergencies.
“The AVBFB is very careful to not suggest any changes that would result in more red tape or time volunteers need to spend on administrative tasks … what the AVBFB does want is a greater respect for and acceptance of local advice in funding and resourcing decisions,” Mr Gossage said.
The Shire of Kojonup was contacted for comment.