Rural fires – who should be in control?

James Nason, 09/11/2023

There are calls for Queensland to return to having a standalone independent rural fire service as exists in other states.

Members of Rural Fire Brigades Queensland voted unanimously at the association’s general meeting last month for the Queensland Government to re-instate a fully independent, standalone Rural Fire Service in Queensland, and for the body to have its own separate legislation and budget and to report directly to the Minister.

In other States rural fire services are standalone agencies, such as the NSW Rural Fire Service and Country Fire Authority in Victoria.

In Queensland the Rural Fire Service once operated autonomously under its own legislation, but was incorporated into the Queensland Department of Emergency Services in 1990.

In recent weeks as major fires have blazed from one area of the state to the other, landholders and fire fighting volunteers have raised concerns about local knowledge and expertise being disregarded when fire management is taken over by fire command centres, which can be long distances from the fire front.

Volunteers risk prosecution for backburning

In some cases landholders conducting back burning fires to control a front have been warned they face prosecution for starting new fires because a fire ban is technically in place.

The situation has prompted some local representatives to speak out about “unnecessary bureaucracy, fear of liability and red tape” making a bad fire situation worse.

Problems with the State’s existing fire management framework were identified in a 2021 review of the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service by KPMG.

The review identified, among other issues, that the Rural Fire Service, while covering 93 percent of Queensland’s land area with a predominantly voluntary workforce, is allocated  only about 6 percent of the QFES’ corporate services budget each year.

Following the review the Queensland Government announced late last year that the 10-year-old Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) will be replaced.

As part of the reform a specific Fire Services Department will be created in its place.

The Rural Fire Service will be hosted within the new department as a separate entity with its own dedicated budget, Minister Mark Ryan said when announcing the reforms in October last year.

Rural Fire Brigades vote unimously for standalone Rural Fire Service

However, brigade members voting at the RFBAQ’s general meeting last month clearly voiced their opinion that a return to a fully independent entity reporting directly to the minister is the preferred option for rural fire fighters.

Justin Choveaux

“The only ones who know how a fire travels through the landscape is someone who lives there,” RFBAQ General Manager Justin Choveaux told Beef Central this week.

“And to take the power away from someone who lives there and for a decision to be made 50, 500, 1000 km away is not how you meet a local need.”

One of the major problems with current arrangements, as Justin Choveaux explained, is that landholders and brigade members are a constant in the same landscape, fighting fires and accumulating local knowledge year after year, whereas the personnel they are dealing with in QFES control centres typically change from fire year to fire year and are not constant.

“It is not that they are bad people, it is just we have got two completely dissimilar machines smashed together,” he said.

Train landholders to join command centres

Landholders and brigade members involved with fire-fighting efforts in recent weeks have expressed frustration at being excluded from fire management decisions in their regions.

After a week of fighting fires on local properties, cattle industry leader Adam Coffey suggested a similar approach to emergency disease outbreak management be adopted where locals with experience and knowledge are trained and paid to participate in command centres during emergencies.

“It serves a number of functions including informing the command centre about local practicalities and what might work and may not work on the ground, and being the liaison back to fellow producers and community about what is happening.

“You would think there would be a cost benefit in spending that money to train local people, compared to putting resources where they are not needed.

“We need to have an open and honest discussion about it, because people’s livelihoods and lives are at stake .”

Red tape stifling fire preparations

Last month before the major bushfires of recent weeks ignited, Central Queensland landholder John Burnett spoke about how red tape was stifling opportunities to carry out hazard reduction burns.

“We had a situation the other day where our Fire Warden could not issue permits because someone had called a total fire ban based on the weather forecast,” he said.

“But the weather forecast does not consider the different situations on the ground – you might have logs on cultivation country, you might be in areas neighbouring overgrazed paddocks, which are very different to dry grass in woodland.

“The communities have elected a responsible person to be Fire Warden of their area and they know the intricacies of those areas. I think you need local management rather than statewide management of fire permits, because you might have a situation where it is unsafe to burn in one area and perfectly (safe) 50km away.”



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  1. Peter F Dunn, 09/11/2023

    Pleased you raised this issue James Nason, because I was involved in eras of a standalone Rural Fire Service and later a unified Fire Service in Queensland. As part of a fortunate career, I am the only person ever to be invited out of the QFS structure to become a Ministerial Adviser to the Minister then responsible for Fire Services in Queensland. (Back then, advisers were required to (and did) act as change agents, and no comparison with contemporary advisers should be made)
    There were at that time, and still are, issues relating to urban expansion and it’s interfacing with a hitherto rural landscape.
    There was later, and still are, issues with structurally centralised control imposed over rural areas, and more specifically, with that control exercised by individuals with urban fire backgrounds as opposed to those with local rural fire backgrounds.
    The more recent introduction of executive level officers from interstate rural fire authorities has done little to allay concerns with overall control, because the centrally controlled structure has not materially altered.
    That said, there is no criticism of the various rural authorities per se, or indeed of the ability of the individuals, only that it is not competent to take an executive from such a structure, and implant them in a completely foreign structure, and to then expect the successes of a rural/regional structure to be precisely replicated in an urban oriented structure.
    Coupled with this is the decades long regression into complacency about fuel load management, wholly driven by the illogical obsession to allow land (starting with, but not confined to, National Parks, environmental forests etc.) to go back to a ‘natural state’.
    In this connection, hindsight confirms that the thing which was “unprecedented” during the Black Summer bushfires was not the weather conditions, as claimed by industry leaders. Notwithstanding, the demands on the Rural Fire authorities and the related risk to the civilian populations would certainly have been unprecedented in many areas.
    However, despite the excuses, the dominant and fatally “unprecedented” issue was the fuel load buildup.
    John Burnett is right about red tape, but it is not only down to the owner/occupier of private land. Governments have to look for opportunities to do more, not less, about fuel load management on public lands, and find more, not less, ways to assist private landholders to manage their fire loads.
    Landholders have to play the hand of cards they are dealt, and in the bushfire hand, fire load management is the only potential trump card they hold. The other cards dealt are regularly trumped by others. The obvious moral of the story is “Temperature, humidity and wind speed are of no consequence if there is no fuel, because then, and only then, can there be no fire.”

  2. DAVID MCKENZIE, 09/11/2023

    Even when there has been some local falls of rain, a blanket fire ban prevents landholders taking advantage of such conditions to conduct hazard reduction burns very safely.
    I very much doubt staff in Rockhampton have much idea of the day to day conditions in places like Aramac and Blackall

  3. Fran THompson, 09/11/2023

    Love this article on the recent handling of fires. We had situations in the Southern Downs where, as a landholder, we had to beg the fire chief to allow the RFS to conduct a back burn. He was approx 30kms from the situation and the young person in charge of the fire at our location was not familiar with the area. Once it was agreed to back burn, the water bombers came in 3 times to extinguish the back burning fire. It was totally frustrating as they were using our water to put out a fire that we had been able to light to save our property. There are many stories of the RFS incompetence – as their hands are tied – which translated into thousands of acres being burned unnecessarily.

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