As high fuel loads and summer heat combine to fuel one of the worst fire seasons in decades, landholders say years of centralisation and cutbacks to rural fire resources are undermining fire fighting efforts.
Queensland cattleman Dale Stiller was among dozens of landholders and volunteer fire fighters who addressed a Queensland Government review into the Rural Fire Service at Roma on Monday.
He then had the demoralising experience of seeing many of the concerns raised at that meeting play out less than 24 hours later when his volunteer brigade was called on to fight a large grassfire near Miles the next day.
Among the many issues raised on Monday was a perceived ‘urban-centric’ focus of state-wide fire management structures, a feeling that the valuable knowledge of local crews was too often overridden and ignored by higher authorities to the detriment of better outcomes, and the view that overwhelming red tape is stifling common sense, practical approaches to fire fighting efforts.
Many of the landholders/volunteer rural fire fighters in the room were over 50, a sign of the changing dynamics at play across rural fire fighting networks. Landholders are older and fewer in number than they used to be, and find themselves being increasingly called upon at significant cost to their own operations to travel further and work longer hours when fires need to be fought.
At midday on Tuesday Mr Stiller’s volunteer rural fire brigade was called to help containment efforts focused on a large fire burning near the Barakula State Forest north of Miles.
He said crews already there believed the fire could have been brought under control had water bombers been brought in earlier in the morning, however rules prevented their use before 9am, by which time the fire had gained in intensity and the opportunity had passed.
Mr Stiller also expressed frustration that large numbers of volunteer fire fighters had to stand around for hours before they could act, because rules prevented back burning operations before 6:30pm.
“If the right effort had been put in first thing this morning this could have been contained,” Mr Stiller told Beef Central on Tuesday night.
Overnight on Tuesday the fire moved into the Barakula State Forest, the largest state forest in the Southern Hemisphere, and a major source of cypress timber for the State’s building industry.
Mr Stiller said he was particularly concerned about the impacts caused to local fire fighting capacity by ongoing cutbacks in government resourcing of state forests and national parks, and the increasing number of unoccupied properties owned by mining companies.
He said staffing of the 260,000ha Barakula had been reduced to two people and equipment had been sold off under the previous Labor State Government.
A fire on an aggregation of 44 properties owned by coal mining giant Xstrata near Wandoan earlier this year provided another example of the increasing burden being placed on remaining landholders to fight fires.
The aggregation, recently home to 44 landholders and their families, is now said to be overseen by one company employee with no fire fighting equipment.
“A fire broke out two months ago there, there weren’t properly maintained fire breaks, and it was left to outside landholders to come in and put it out.
“They had also turned off the water infrastructure on the farms so they couldn’t just go and refill at a farm trough, they had to go to existing farms still operating so they could reload with water.”
Back burning efforts to contain the fire in and near Barakula State Forest were continuing this morning. It is one of more than 60 reported fires that authorities are dealing with across the State as summer temperatures soar.