Parliamentary Committees: Select Committee on the Fire and Emergency Services (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill

Thursday November 28, 2019

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (12:34): I rise to make a few brief comments on the Fire and Emergency Services (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill. I guess that it was a bit of footage from the Yorke Peninsula fires quite recently that triggered memories I have of Ash Wednesday. Maybe they were suppressed, I do not know. The ferocious winds that were whipped up, seeing a camera crew talking to a farmer on Yorke Peninsula with fire burning in the background, hearing that wind and seeing the ferociousness of the fire brought back memories of 1983 and Ash Wednesday. I think we need to remember just how deadly that fire was. It was fanned by winds of up to 110 km/h an hour. There were 500,000 acres burnt, 75 deaths and countless injuries.

In fact, the dad of one of my best friends at primary school was out on his farm when the fire front came over. He survived by shooting a cow and lying underneath the cow—lying under the ute with the cow blocking it. He was severely burnt and had years of bandages and horrific scarring all over him, but at least he survived. It was that memory and seeing that footage last week or the week before that really brought home to me the importance of fire prevention and having good policies and procedures in place.

When the original bill was put up, I had CFS people come to talk to me and tell me that they did not want to be directing farmers. They wanted to be out fighting fires and not pitting themselves against their neighbours or their friends. As the member for Finniss quite rightly said, 99.9 percent of people do the right thing and are sensible. If there is an element of people who are not doing the right thing, we need to have a mechanism to direct them, and I fully support the move towards SAPOL having that role.

Down in the South-East, we have another complicating factor, namely, pine plantations that are privately owned. There is a huge acreage of privately owned plantations that have their own firefighting ability, and of course it is in their best interests to make sure that they have preventative programs and adequate resources. On a catastrophic day, which may lead to a catastrophic event, the ability to coordinate private resources to form a united front is really important. I am glad that has been addressed as well so that the command or the people in charge will have the authority to direct private brigades to give the best defences we can provide.

What most people forget about Ash Wednesday—and I would hate to see that occur again—is that it is not perhaps the initial fire that does a lot of damage. If a northerly is blowing, obviously a fire will travel north to south and extend out over a distance of hundreds of metres, if not kilometres, and as the front progresses forward the fire is burning behind. With the unpredictable nature of fires, a lot of the damage occurs when the wind shifts. The worst wind shift is a 90° wind shift from north winds to an easterly or westerly wind.

Once you have the front going forward one, two or three kilometres and you have a 90° wind shift, you then have a front that is not 50 or 100 metres wide but one that is perhaps 10 or 15 kilometres wide and blowing in a totally different direction. A lot of loss of life occurs because fire crews are predicting forward of the front what is coming and then, when it turns at 90° or variations of 90°, you have a massive front burning in a different direction, and it is very difficult to prevent that as it unfolds in front of your eyes.

I also want to talk about where we need to focus our attention coming out of this bill, and that is around volunteers. As we head into a very busy bushfire season, I have spoken at length to Grant Fensom, the Kingsley CFS Group Officer. He has told me that over the years the numbers of volunteers have dropped off quite considerably. Just in his group section, numbers have dropped from about 140 members a few years ago to about 80 this year, with only 50 of those members active firefighters.

Grant says that brigades such as Blackfellows Caves and Mount Schank are facing the possibility of not having enough members to staff trucks this year. His area takes in Allendale East, Blackfellows Caves, Donovans, Kongorong, Mount Schank and Port MacDonnell. The Tatiara group in the Upper South-East has also told Grant that they may lose a brigade due to dwindling numbers. This of course is deeply concerning.

The current situation we have seen on Yorke Peninsula, as well as in Queensland and New South Wales, demonstrates how serious this year's fire season is going to be. Whilst most visitors come to the South-East and see pretty, lush green paddocks, the CFS officers tell me that the index they use for soil moisture shows that it is the driest it has been in decades. In fact, the soil moisture of the pine plantations is extremely dry.

Blackfellows Caves got a brand-new $300,000 truck this year, which we are obviously grateful for, but they have only three members. In recent years, there has been funding for new trucks, equipment and station upgrades, which again is fantastic, but there is none for regional volunteer recruitment and support. This is a critical area that needs to be addressed. There is not much point having the equipment sitting there if you do not have trained volunteers able to use it at a time of need.

Grant said that around 10 years ago many regions had a paid role for recruitment and volunteer support. He works hard as a volunteer to get the word out and to recruit people, giving presentations at breakfast meetings and visiting local schools to educate students. I can attest to Grant Fensom's work. He is a dedicated community member. He did a fundraiser for our philanthropic organisation, Stand Like Stone, and raised tens of thousands of dollars for a bus for the Port MacDonnell community.

The problem of dwindling volunteer numbers is a story I hear time and time again. It is a sign of the times in which we live. Everyone is time poor, with lots of commitments for young people, and they are not replacing older volunteers. Grant wants people and businesses to understand that the job adapts to the time that you have, not the other way around. At a recent breakfast meeting, he gave a presentation to a group of local businesspeople and said that he was surprised at how little understanding there was of the involvement of a CFS volunteer.

Employers have misconceptions that volunteers have to devote every waking minute to the job, but of course this is not the case. Grant is involved in four businesses and employs eight CFS volunteers, so he understands the impact on businesses. We need to ask ourselves: what is the cost to our communities if people do not sign up and get involved? Volunteers give up their own time at odd hours of the day or night and during summer holidays while the rest of us are enjoying time off with families.

All told, South Australian volunteers contribute three million hours each year for the 425 CFS brigades to attend road crashes, bushfires, grassfires and hazardous material spills. When we call 000 in the time of an emergency, many of us take for granted that the help we need will arrive. As Grant says, you can have all the bells and whistles in the world, but if you do not have people the best equipment and facilities are useless.