July 16th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY 2016 election: Malcolm makes allies malcontents

CANBERRA OBSERVED Electorate shock: PM touches reality's live wire

WA BUSHFIRE INQUIRY Ferguson report a beauty, but now the fight begins

AGRICULTURE Sweet success for farmers in Queensland sugar market


ECONOMICS Ignore scaremongers; Britannia rules apply

PUBLIC POLICY WA Meth Strategy 2016 a most welcome first step

EUTHANASIA Measure of success of Dutch tests will be death

HIGHER EDUCATION Trigger warnings: an infantile tyranny

FREE SPEECH From disagreement to discrimination: section 18C, Part 2

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Middle Kingdom brings eternal Now down under

MUSIC Weighing up sounds and silence in John Tavener

CINEMA Memory, self and family: Finding Dory

BOOK REVIEW Mao Maoing a culture

ERICH VON MANSTEIN: Hitler's Master Strategist

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Ferguson report a beauty, but now the fight begins

by Roger Underwood

News Weekly, July 16, 2016

Reflecting on the bushfire that destroyed Dwellingup and three other towns in the summer of 1961, former Conservator of Forests Bruce Beggs remarked: “The great lesson learned from the 1961 bushfires was the need for fuel reduction. Without it, no force on earth can stop a fire on a bad day.” 

The plumes of smoke show

where the Yarloop fire is burning.

The lesson was well learnt and led to a revolution in fire management in Western Australia. Broad-acre prescribed burning became routine, with up to 300,000 hectares burned annually.

The impact was sensational. For a period of nearly 40 years, the southwest was virtually free of bushfire damage. Fires would start (there were over a hundred of them on the same day during Cyclone Alby), but they were easy to control. The system developed after 1961 became the envy of the world. Regrettably, all this unravelled after about 2000. The burning program fell away.

Fire became an “emergency” for which massive forces waited, ready to pounce. The trouble was, as Bruce Beggs knew, without fuel reduction, firefighters soon became impotent.

The result was one ghastly bushfire after another: the Perth Hills, Toodyay, Roleystone, Mt Helena, Northcliffe, Boddington, Esperance, Waroona, with mounting losses of lives, houses, infrastructure and forests.

The bushfire inquiry business also flourished. Former policeman Mick Keelty conducted two, and there have been another four in just the last two years. Meanwhile the situation on the ground has continued to get worse.

However, the February 2016 Waroona fire, which killed two people and destroyed the town of Yarloop, may be a game-changer.

This disaster led to a real inquiry by a man with real bushfire experience. Euan Ferguson is professionally trained in land management and was previously head of both the South Australian and Victorian country fire services.

After a remarkably efficient review, his report was released at the end of June – and it is a beauty.

Ferguson has done what no other fire reviewer has done in recent years. He has gone behind the events of the fire, and looked deep into WA’s bushfire system. Here he found a litany of deficiencies.

A system has been exposed that is leaderless, poorly coordinated and wasteful. But, worst of all, it is one that cannot protect rural West Australians and their assets from high intensity fires.


Ferguson made 45 recommendations, but two are critical.

The first is summed up in this observation early in the report: “There is a compelling argument that the state needs to readjust expenditure away from fire response and recovery towards a greater investment in prevention and fuel hazard management.”

Hallelujah! Ferguson has nailed the key factor in the current crisis. The failure to reduce fuels to manageable levels has set up the community and the bush for the killer bushfire.

While most rural people support fuel reduction burning, there remains a vocal and powerful lobby in the environmental movement and in academia that is opposed and that will never admit that it is wrong.

In the past these people have been able to influence government policy and agency practices. In his unequivocal call for more burning, Ferguson has made it very difficult for the government to back-pedal.

Ferguson’s other critical recommendation was to create a rural fire service.

This has been widely applauded in rural circles, where people feel that they have been let down by the Fire and Emergency Services department (DFES).

Volunteer firefighters in particular resent being treated as second-class citizens by paid firemen (who refer to themselves as “professional firefighters”, implying that the volunteers are amateurs), and there is no love lost between DFES and the department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW), which is responsible for fire management in state forests and national parks.

DPaW has an excellent relationship with the vollies, and would fit smoothly into new arrangements with a rural fire service.

Unfortunately there are powerful forces lined up against a rural fire service. Obviously DFES is against the idea, as it would reduce its power, influence and funding.

Less obvious is the fierce opposition of the United Firefighters Union (UFU), one of the state’s most militant unions and for long an obstacle to well-coordinated fire operations and good working relations with the vollies and DPaW. It will be seeking to pressure Emergency Services Minister Joe Francis, who, surprisingly, has been lukewarm towards Ferguson so far.

My main worry is that the Government has not come out and endorsed the Ferguson report. It is “thinking about it”.

If this reflection extends to the next election, due early next year, the whole thing could quietly fade away. The election of a Labor government, with its strong ties to the unions, could be the death knell.

If this happens, it is inevitable that there will be another bushfire tragedy, another inquiry and the same set of recommendations will emerge. Yarloop and its residents will have died for nothing.

Roger Underwood is Chairman of the Bushfire Front, an organisation of foresters and firefighting specialists who have worked in bush areas for many years and campaign for improved forest and fire management.

Mr Underwood has over 50 years experience of bushfire management in Australia and overseas. He was formerly General Manager of the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) in WA, a regional and district manager, a research manager and bushfire specialist. He directs a consultancy practice with a focus on bushfire management.

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