A Western Australian county at the center of one of the state’s worst bushfires has decided to waive its duty of care to volunteer bush firefighters as the majority of WA councils admit they are not unhappy with the current system.

Two people died and nearly 200 buildings were destroyed when a bushfire tore through the town of Yarloop in 2016.

In the aftermath, a special inquiry recommended the creation of a rural fire service separate from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES).

The McGowan government instead set up a rural fire division within DFES, leaving the duty of care to local councils.

A new survey of 92 local governments in WA found that 93% were not completely satisfied with the current management of volunteer fire brigades.

The destruction and loss of life at Yarloop has prompted a special government investigation.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

Just over half of local governments surveyed said they were not in favor of running bushfire brigades.

Local governments ‘don’t have that expertise’

Waroona County, in which Yarloop is located, said recent changes to the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Act have raised the bar for the county’s level of accountability to volunteers.

A wide shot of a bushfire burning in the trees along a road with fire trucks on the other side of the road.
Shire of Waroona says they could be charged if a volunteer dies fighting a fire.(Provided: AAP/DFES)

Chief executive Mark Goodlet said Waroona was not fit for purpose when it comes to duty of care for volunteer firefighters.

“Rural firefighting is a very high-risk activity,” he said.

“I am aware that the DFES helps with risk mitigation and training, but they do not bear the responsibility.

“The local government is doing it, who doesn’t have that expertise.”

Mr Goodlet said if a volunteer firefighter was killed on the job, the council could be investigated and prosecuted for manslaughter.

“The fines for which a council could itself be prosecuted have increased from three and a half million dollars to 10 million dollars,” he said.

The charred remains of an old house in Yarloop
The Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades of WA wants to remain under the direction of local governments.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

Waroona County Chairman Mike Walmsley, whose farm property was affected by the 2016 fire, said a better way had to be found.

“They [the state government] went for the Rural Fire Division [but] which basically became an administrative arm or an advisory arm,” he said.

“That’s not really what the recommendation is about.”

Volunteers “stunned” by the move

Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades of WA state president Dave Gossage said Waroona’s decision to advocate for an end to their responsibilities was a concerning trend.

“I’m just a little stunned by what [the Waroona council] said,” he said.

“The only people saying it’s broken are state agencies wanting to take over and build an empire, and that’s not in the public interest.”

Dave Gossage stands in uniform
Dave Gossage says Waroona’s decision is part of a worrying trend.(ABC Southwest: Anthony Pancia)

Mr Gossage urged councils to change tack and advocate for a bigger share of the Emergency Services Levy (ESL) to better equip them to manage volunteer brigades.

“Only 20 million [the ESL] goes directly to local government which provides approximately 90% of the state emergency service response,” he said.

“So if local government administrators focus their energy on getting the lion out of the meat chest, then they might have a bigger slice of the pie.”

WALGA wants a “hybrid model”

The WA Local Government Association (WALGA) has released a discussion paper to understand local government sentiment on the issue.

He advocated a clear path for local governments to transfer responsibility for the brigades to the state government.

“A hybrid model would make it possible to continue to manage [volunteer brigades] by local governments that have the capacity,” the newspaper said.

“While framing the transfer of the management of [volunteer brigades] to state government where a local government does not. »

A mid shot of WA Environment Minister Stephen Dawson speaking at a press conference.
Stephen Dawson is said to be undecided whether the government supports the councils’ position.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

In a statement, Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson said local governments had always had a duty of care to bushfire volunteers and there had been no change in responsibility.

He said local governments were financially supported through the ESL and more than $140 million had been set aside in the May state budget to improve firefighting resources.

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