A report says it could cost between $4 million and $500 billion for a WA Rural Fire Service. (Supplied: Bunbury Volunteer Fire Brigade)
Eighteen months ago, Yarloop sat in ruin after a ferocious bushfire burned most of the town in Western Australia’s South West, killed two men and wreaked havoc on countless lives.
West Australians were promised answers — and a few months later they came, in the form of a scathing review undertaken by former Victorian country fire boss Euan Ferguson.
Mr Ferguson’s report urged the Government to “fundamentally change” the system of bushfire management in WA, claiming the current structure was “failing” the public in a chilling warning about the state’s emergency management.
The biggest change Mr Ferguson recommended was the establishment of a rural fire service (RFS), describing it as the most effective path to drive the “changes in methodology, governance, resourcing, capability and focus” he believed were needed.
But a year later, there is still no clarity on whether a RFS — similar to what is in place in other states — will ever be created in WA, let alone when that will happen or what form it will take.
Charging a stretched budget
In the wake of Mr Ferguson’s report, the Economic Regulation Authority was asked to look at the cost of a possible RFS.
But its draft report offered little certainty, as it found such a service could cost anything from $4 million to $500 million each year.
The wide difference relates to whether a RFS should be professionalised — something few have called for — or whether the existing volunteer structure should be maintained.
The McGowan Government has been non-committal on the subject of a RFS, warning repeatedly it was concerned about the cost and added bureaucracy.
Emergency Services Minister Fran Logan is on leave and therefore unavailable to comment, while Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan made few guarantees when asked about the report.
“That is something that we are going to have to work very hard on, how we might fit something like that into the budget,” she said.
At a time when WA’s debt continues to soar and the Government is trying to reduce the level of bureaucracy, few would argue the Government’s concerns are not understandable.
Avoiding a political headache
There are political issues, too, as a RFS would likely be funded by hikes to the Emergency Services Levy, with the more expensive option costing WA property owners hundreds of dollars each year.
Plus, the McGowan Government will be desperate to avoid a repeat of the war over rural firefighting which has plagued Labor in Victoria, with volunteers here keen to reduce the Department of Fire and Emergency Services’ level of control while unions resist the RFS option.
“It’s about time we had some recommendations about spending the resources where they are most needed, and that is the coalface,” United Firefighters Union branch secretary Lea Anderson said.
If the ERA is correct and one of the Ferguson Report’s key recommendations can be implemented for just $4 million each year, the case for a RFS will undoubtedly look strong.
But a firm decision from the Government is not expected until after the ERA releases its final report, meaning the wait for change will continue for some time to come.
For now, it looks almost certain the state will go into at least another fire season — and perhaps even more than that — with an emergency management structure looking much like the one Mr Ferguson found was failing WA’s people.