Dear Mr Keelty,
Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission to the South Australian 2019-2020 Bushfire Review.
I would first like to express my sincere gratitude to all the Country Fire Service (CFS) volunteers, emergency services personnel, healthcare workers, support staff and our resilient communities for their outstanding efforts during the devastating 2019-2020 bushfire season.
Local CFS volunteers from the Waite electorate found themselves at Yorketown, Cudlee Creek and Kangaroo Island as well as interstate deployments during this past season.
My electorate of Waite comprises a peri-urban area with key bushfire zones across the Mitcham Hills and Mt Lofty Ranges, including the suburbs of Belair, Blackwood, Coromandel Valley, Crafers West, Eden Hills, Lynton and Brownhill Creek.
It is home to five CFS stations falling under the banner of the Sturt CFS Group and one State Emergency Service (SES) station, critical state environmental infrastructure such as Belair National Park and significant local reserves such as Sturt Gorge and Shepherds Hill Recreation Park.
Residents in my electorate remain vigilant in preparing for the bushfire season, however, the extraordinary events of 2019-2020 have given us all cause for concern. As such, my submission reflects the comments and views of my constituents in the context of the community that they live in.
Prevention: Fuel Reduction and Other Measures
Many constituents are concerned that fuel load reductions have been restricted in recent years and they believe it would be beneficial if more prescribed burns took place across the region. This is especially the case within Belair National Park.
Undertaking strategic burns before the next bushfire season and making it easier for burns to be approved (and the streamlining approvals) would assist in ensuring our community reduces fuel loads in important locations.
Our local community is home to a number of large nature parks and scrub reserves, including Belair National Park, Brownhill Creek Recreation Park, Shepherds Hill Recreation Park, Randell Park Reserve, Watiparinga Reserve, Waite Conservation Reserve, Windy Point and Blackwood Forest Reserve.
Many of our reserves and parks are in close proximity to urban areas, which presents a significant risk each bushfire season.
Mr Peter Bird, President of the Friends of Waite Conservation Reserve states that the “Reserve is long unburnt, highly fire-prone grassy woodland surrounded on three sides by more of the same.”i
If other key reserves and parks in the area also have large amounts of dry fuel, it is important that we look to clearing this in strategic areas.
Mr Bird acknowledges the risks associated with prescribed burns, in terms of adverse impact on certain plants and animals that are sensitive to fire. However, he also states:
“But strategic use of fire also has its rewards and opportunities. Prescribed burns may:
- Reduce fuel loads in key areas to help manage the scope and severity of bushfires in the reserve and for surrounding neighbours
- Promote regeneration of fire-adapted native plants and renew vigour in others…”ii
Mr Bird told me recently that he believes that burning in parks should only be done in conjunction with experienced fire ecologists and in strategic areas to create burnt and unburnt patches.
Removing red tape
The window for undertaking prescribed burning can be small and heavily reliant on prevailing weather conditions. Within the current regulatory regime, it can be difficult for many private landowners to navigate the official and Departmental channels before a private property burn can be approved.
The current approval system should be reviewed to ensure that unnecessary red tape is not preventing important controlled burns occurring when they need to on public and private property.
CFS controlled burns
It would be advantageous for the CFS to conduct their own controlled burns in strategic areas across State and Local Council parks and reserves as part of bushfire prevention programs.
This would prepare the local community for the coming bushfire season and provide CFS volunteers with valuable training, so they are better prepared for fighting fires. These burns could be conducted at times to maximise the training benefit, such as on weekends when most volunteers are available. These practices have historically been the case within the Sturt Group.
There are a limited number of arterial roads within the Mitcham Hills area. The only roads that have capacity to service in the event of a mass evacuation are the two lane (both directions) Shepherds Hill Road, as well as the single lane Old Belair Road and Belair Road.
In the event of an evacuation, it would be in the residents’ best interests that the verges of key arterial roads – Belair Road, Old Belair Road, Main Road and Upper Sturt Road specifically - were routinely maintained. A risk assessment would identify potential trees or vegetation to be removed, as would regular kerbside maintenance from Council and the Department of Environment and Water.
Belair National Park
Maintaining an adequate buffer zone and fire break on the site of the old Belair Golf Course located within the Belair National Park must remain a priority for the Department of Environment and Water.
It is important that local councils (namely Mitcham Council) work closely with the CFS to maintain the existing access tracks and assist in bushfire risk mitigation. The task for access track inspection and maintenance falls largely to local CFS volunteers; however, I believe that there is merit for access road maintenance through reserves and national parks to be a function of Government and the Country Fire Service operations.
Additionally, the DPTI and Australian Rail Track Corporation-managed rail corridor in the Mitcham Hills area requires ongoing fuel reduction maintenance to reduce the risk of fires beginning within that corridor.
The long-term removal of rail freight from the Mitcham Hills will also assist in bushfire risk mitigation as well as remove fear surrounding rail freight derailment on severe and catastrophic fire days.
Adequate CFS Funding
A significant concern in my local community is adequate ongoing funding for local CFS Brigades.
Funding is crucial to ensure they are fully prepared - through training, equipment and support - to protect South Australians in the event of fire and emergency.
Funding for more paid staff
I am led to believe that during this latest bushfire season, paid staff were deployed to bushfire locations like Kangaroo Island, without necessarily those positions at operational Headquarters being appropriately “backfilled”. This left local CFS volunteers unable to conduct elements of their day-to-day volunteer work within their Region.
Situations like this simply come down to not having enough paid staff on hand.
Appropriate resourcing of core CFS management would have beneficial flow-on effects in terms of providing consistent support to volunteers.
Adequate training for volunteers
The recent bushfire season has seen an influx of South Australians seeking to volunteer with the CFS. While this positive engagement is high, the CFS need to quickly train new recruits to keep them engaged so they are ready to volunteer at the next bushfire season.
Unfortunately, at times, current training processes do not allow Brigades to efficiently train volunteers. There are not enough training spots and trainers, and ordering equipment and uniforms is cumbersome.
New volunteers can become disengaged if it takes too long for them to be adequately trained.
While certain processes are necessary to ensure that proper training occurs, a review of these training procedures may be warranted.
More trainers and additional training courses are required, along with training times on weekends and weeknights to suit volunteer work arrangements. Processes around uniform and equipment supply could be streamlined. First Aid training for all volunteers, funded by the CFS, would also be a worthwhile endeavour.
When fires occur simultaneously in two or more states, as happened in the 2019-2020 bushfire season, firefighting personnel are stretched thin.
Several constituents have raised the idea of establishing a Reserve fleet of volunteers and equipment (trucks included), to provide much-needed support during the busy times. I believe the establishment of CFS Reserves has also been flagged by the Minister for Emergency Services, Hon. Corey Wingard MP.
This could involve people living in urban areas volunteering for the CFS, if only for the summer months. These would be people who have previous firefighting experience and require minimal training to meet current requirements.
Improved equipment, stations and systems
Additional capital funding would be well utilised to maintain fire stations, and to provide better equipment and systems to volunteers.
All fleet trucks and tankers (and ideally all other vehicles used by the CFS such as Command Cars) should have Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) systems installed. I believe this should be a basic requirement of our CFS Fleets.
Being able to track vehicles when deployed in an emergency is of utmost importance to maintain the safety of volunteers and coordinate firefighting operations.
Flexibility around CFS deployment and leave options
Some employers are unfortunately not open to providing flexible leave arrangements for those undertaking long CFS deployments.
I have heard of instances where firefighters were asked to use their Annual Leave or Long Service Leave during this recent season. While I understand that the individual makes the decision to volunteer, people should not have to use their own personal leave entitlements to risk their lives to fight fires on the community’s behalf, especially in a prolonged and devastating fire season such as 2019-2020.
CFS volunteers do not sign up in order to receive accolades – they only want to help their community – but some sort of recognition of their effort and sacrifice, particularly in this sphere, is worthy of consideration.
This could involve reimbursement (from the CFS) of workplace Annual Leave/Long Serivce Leave used by firefighters who are deployed to higher level bushfire events.
Eden Hills CFS Station
The final matter of concern relates to the Eden Hills CFS station.
This station holds an important strategic position in the local area and is critical to the Sturt CFS Group.
Constant rumoured discussion in amending the MFS/CFS boundaries and call out times in relation to the Eden Hills station is unhelpful.
There is a strong held belief in my community that the Eden Hills CFS station must remain a strategic volunteer brigade in the Mitcham Hills.
All personnel involved in the 2019-2020 bushfire season are to be commended for their outstanding service to our state. It is still a trying time for all South Australians and we are grateful for the continued service of all our emergency services personnel.
I trust that this submission is useful in conveying the views of the people in the Waite electorate. Given that the area is on the urban/rural fringe of metropolitan Adelaide and prone to fires, our residents offer a unique perspective on bushfire management.
Thank you for taking the time to consider this submission and I wish you and your team the best during your deliberations.
Sam Duluk MP
Member for Waite
16 April 2020