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Australia Queensland volunteer firefighters, landholders call for reduction in red tape to tackle bushfires on frontline

22:25  18 november  2019
22:25  18 november  2019 Source:   abc.net.au

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Volunteer firies and landholders say calls for back-burning during the bushfire emergency are met with red tape As bushfires continue to blaze across Queensland , volunteer firefighters and landholders say increased bureaucracy has impeded their ability to fight the flames on the frontline .

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As bushfires continue to blaze across Queensland, volunteer firefighters and landholders say increased bureaucracy has impeded their ability to fight the flames on the frontline.

Many working on firegrounds throughout the state have said the length of time it now takes for backburning to be approved leaves firefighters and properties vulnerable to the fast-moving flames.

Mango farmer Robert Sikes, who lives at Bungundarra near Yeppoon, suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to his property in the recent bushfires that destroyed about 12,000 hectares.

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"There was a prohibition on backburning, which rendered our local fire brigades ineffective and so they were not able to backburn," Mr Sikes said, a 30-year resident of the region.

a close up of a man with a beard looking at the camera: Roger Draper at the rural firefighting service shed after fighting the blaze at Woodgate. (ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)© Provided by Australian Broadcasting Corporation Roger Draper at the rural firefighting service shed after fighting the blaze at Woodgate. (ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)

"I don't know when it was — it must have been a long time ago — but there must have been a man a lot smarter than me that said, 'you fight fire with fire.'"

Mr Sikes, who has previously been involved with the fire brigade, said those with firsthand experience should have been given the responsibility to make fire management decisions on the ground.

Without back-burning fires 'impossible to control'

Further south at Woodgate, near Bundaberg, volunteer firefighters have experienced similar shortcomings with the new process.

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Volunteer firefighter and farmer, Roger Draper, said the new regulations also had a major impact on how they tackled the Walkers Point blaze.

"All the new rules mean the firies have to sit on the break and wait for the main front to come to them before they can put it out," Mr Draper said.

"It makes everything more dangerous. You're sitting in the heat, in the smoke of the fire, and it's impossible to control the fire."

Mr Draper said the lack of back-burning at Woodgate added fuel to the fire.

"The fire had crept during the night to this break, and there were units sitting there waiting for the fire to come to the rest of the break, and we looked a further kilometre up and the fire was crowning over our break," he said.

"Now that fire eventually jumped into the council area, and because we could not back-burn that Wednesday evening it created another two days of extra work to stop the fire on the western end."

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'It's a team game': Deputy Commisser

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) Deputy Commissioner, John Bolger, said the new regulations were meant to better protect volunteers — not make their firefighting efforts more difficult.

"There's not a ban on back-burning," he said.

"It's extremely hazardous and dangerous … for us to introduce fire into the landscape."

Bushfire© ABC Bushfire

Deputy Commissioner Bolger said under the regulations, when an internal fire danger rating reached 25 or above, the incident controller must be notified and a request logged before permission to back-burn was given.

As the conditions deteriorated the approval process is pushed to a higher authority, whether that be the Rural Fire Service regional manager or the Fire and Rescue Service director of regional operations.

"We haven't taken anything away from firefighters in the field," Deputy Commissioner Bolger said.

"If they see an immediate threat, if they believe they're in danger or property is in danger, we'll trust their instinct, experience, and knowledge and they can put a back-burn into the landscape.

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"Last year we were very fortunate that a couple of our operators weren't killed in an inappropriate back-burning, so it's not banned it's just more regulated."

Deputy Commissioner Bolger said it meant QFES would take responsibility for the back-burning operations so volunteers were not exposed.

"It's a team game firefighting," he said.

"It's a matter of incident controllers relaying and communicating appropriately that back-burning is not banned.

"It's just we'd like you to ring or radio in, give us the map, give us the plan, and nine times out of 10 we'll allow that back burn."

Bushfire© ABC Bushfire

Fixing the disconnect

The general manager of the Rural Fire Brigades Association of Queensland (RFBAQ), Justin Choveaux, said the purpose behind the back-burning approval process was to add diligence when putting new fire on the ground.

"The thought process behind that was to not make the fire worse by adding more fire," he said.

"In the last fire season there was a couple of instances where fire was applied on the ground for back-burning, and it probably shouldn't have been, and it got away."

However Mr Choveaux said the introduction had come with varying degrees of success.

"Rural fire brigade volunteers are complaining that they're not able to use fire on the ground, and not able to make the community safer through the use of fire, because they are not able to get approval or they're not able to get approval in a timely manner," he said.

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"The disconnect we've heard in a number of instances is the timeliness of that information going up, being processed, and approval or denial coming back down to the firefighters on the ground," he said.

Mr Choveaux said the RFBAQ members had found the decision had been going to somebody who perhaps did not have the same local knowledge.

Bushfire© ABC Bushfire "So they may not be fully aware of the benefits of doing a back-burn on the fire could give you," he said.

The Liberal National Party Member for Burnett, Stephen Bennett, said there were a number of incidents during the Woodgate fire where the new approval process caused issues.

"[At] Acacia Street, Woodgate earlier last week requests were made for that [to] be back-burned," he said.

"Conditions were right, and of course we know that was denied, and subsequently we had a re-emergence of the fire later in the week in that exact area."

Mr Bennett said it slowed down the work of fire crews on the ground.

"Simple requests, like a bulldozer to push firebreaks, we believe it gets escalated once, twice, three times before someone can make a decision," he said.

"We need to back our emergency volunteers, not create a bureaucracy of nonsense around them."

At Microsoft News Australia we've partnered with the giving platform Benevity to raise funds for Australian Red Cross, St Vincent De Paul Society and The Salvation Army; these organisations are helping communities across the country devastated by bushfires. You can help these organisations by donating here and for the latest news and RFS links visit Bushfire emergency.


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