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Cheers to the fire fighters

by Steve Whan

There are some weeks to go before fire season is over but we have already seen the magnificent work of the Rural Fire Service (RFS) and our emergency services protecting us this summer. Unfortunately we have also seen appalling conditions lead to the loss of houses and thousands of head of stock and wildlife.

I acknowledge and thank the RFS volunteers who give their own time and put themselves in difficult and trying conditions to protect us and our properties. It is also important to thank and acknowledge all the services involved including the SES, Fire and Rescue NSW, Police, local council staff, National Parks, Forests NSW, DPI, LHPA, Salvos and many others.

In our area we have seen a lot of looking back at the 2003 fires over the last few weeks and I think we can see that we are now much better prepared.

When I was Minister for Emergency Services, and again at the fire control centres I visited in the last couple of weeks, I noted just how well everyone works together.

That’s because NSW got it right in ensuring that everyone knows exactly who is in charge and what the roles are – you might think that’s fairly obvious but in Victoria in 2009 that wasn’t the case.

Less equipment rolling out

At the base we rely on those 70,000 generous people who give their time to our Rural Fire Brigades without whom there would be massive loss of property and life. To help them, over 200 new or refurbished tankers were rolled out each year from 2003 to 2011, personal protective equipment improved and many fire control centres and sheds were built.

NSW increased aerial support and that means that now we have greater capacity to attack fires in remote locations quickly and effectively. My memory is that in 2003, over 100 fires started in our area from lightning strikes – in one night.

When that happens now we can attack many more of those fires quickly from the air to support and supplement the efforts of local brigades. Other initiatives included better public education and information, new fire danger ratings enhanced strategic hazard reduction, mitigation crews, etc.

RFS, DPI cuts

Amidst all the good work has come a worrying note for the future. The government has demanded cuts from the RFS.Bizarrely, rather than admitting the cuts and addressing them the minister and some government MPs sought to fib about them.

They claimed there are no cuts and even claiming the last Labor Government cut funds (in fact it substantially increased them). Given the RFS commissioner wrote to all staff saying they had to make cuts to meet government targets, the government’s comments seem disingenuous.

What we know is that 24 RFS staff have been made redundant and that 2012 saw the lowest number of new or refurbished tankers rolled out for over a decade (177). We don’t know yet what the impact will be on training and support for our volunteers.

The other area cuts could affect future responses are in the Department of Primary Industries (DPI). DPI and Livestock Health and Pest Authorities have been helping farmers treat stock and find fodder for the surviving animals.It’s a tough job, many animals have to be put down and we know that farmers have lost many thousands of head.

In our local area my last information is that the fire near Cooma saw at least 2,450 head die and more than 200 kilometres of fencing destroyed. I have been told that the Sand Hills Road fire between Bungendore and Braidwood didn’t see stock deaths as high but still it has kept the local vet and DPI busy.

Will they be there to help in future? Budget cuts mean our area has already lost our valued agronomist and it’s clear that DPI will have far fewer expert staff on the ground.

Still time to comment on catchment service boundaries

We’ve seen over the last couple of weeks what a great job DPI staff do. The problem is the minister’s new structure and budget cuts have not considered future emergency responses.

In my last column I highlighted the need to comment on boundaries for the new Local Land Services (LLS), the new structure with less on the ground staff is part of the same restructuring.

Unfortunately it is too late to stop the cuts – the minister went ahead with those without consultation. It’s not too late though to comment on the structure and role of the new LLS and I would urge people to get onto the DPI web site and make sure their opinion is heard.

After every major fire season our emergency authorities take a careful look back to see what they could do better in future. After this one they will be able to say generally that we were well prepared for a very difficult and challenging set of conditions and our emergency services performed well.

I only hope that Government budget cuts don’t see us loose vital elements of that preparedness in the longer term.

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