Public Policy and Fire

Advances in legislation, policy, and management
Our formal response to fire has evolved over the decades. The table below highlights significant fire seasons of NSW (left) and significant changes to our governance of fire policy and management (right).

1957 – Leura devastated, at least 600 left homeless. Wentworth Falls and the Lower Blue Mountains were affected as well. Other fires causing severe damage that season occurred in Lithgow, Woy Woy, Gosford, Narrabeen, Dee Why, Condobolin, and Armidale.1964-65 – fires raged in Snowy Mountains, Southern Tablelands, and outer Sydney.

1968-69 – major fires in Lower Blue Mountains destroy 123 buildings and three lives lost. Fires burn in Wollongong, destroying homes and rainforest.

1975 – severe fire season for far west NSW.

1977-78 – Fires in the Blue Mountains kill three people and destroy 49 buildings.

1978-79, 1979-80 – Fires burn on periurban Sydney. Heavy stock losses in the Southern Highlands. nine People killed in 1979-80.

1981 – over 887,000ha burnt, eight lives lost.

1984 – 6,000 fires raged, four lives lost, $40,000,000 in losses recorded. 500,000ha of grassed areas in Western NSW burnt.

1993-94 – 18,300 volunteer firefighters deployed at over 800 fires across the State. Four lives and 206 houses lost. Fires in the Grose Valley re-burn areas already extensively burnt in 1987-88 Fires,  in 1994 encroach on Sydney.

2001-02 – 744,000ha burnt, 109 houses destroyed and over 6,000 stock killed. Extensive and severe impacts across a high proportion of Sydney’s water catchments, conservation reserves in the Blue Mountains.

2002-03 – extensive fires burned across NSW. Section 44 of the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) was invoked continuously for 151 days, from 27 September 2002 to 24 February 2003. Section 44 allows for the RFS Commissioner to take charge of firefighting operations and is invoked when a particular fire situation has assumed proportions greater than the capacity of the locally responsible firefighting authority. Nearly 1,500,000ha burnt, extensive property losses, three lives lost. A feature of the fire season was the extensive use of aerial support in various capacities—fire detection; observation; visual and electronic reconnaissance; fire suppression; command, control and communications; and transportation for remote area fire teams. At the height of firefighting operations, 103 aircraft (80 per cent of them rotary) were deployed across the state in support of the suppression effort. Major impacts also in Canberra.

2006 – major fires burn out areas of ecological significance in the Grose Valley.

1958 – first Fire Prevention Association established. The Association was concerned with developing firebreak systems and other means of preventing fires on vacant Crown Land.1970 – establishment of Bush Fire Council of NSW, appointment of Chief Coordinator of Bush Fire Fighting. Bush Fires Branch established within the Chief Secretary’s Department to provide administrative support to the Bush Fire Council.1971 – Coordinating Committee established within Bush Fire Council to encourage hazard reduction programs in mountain and coastal regions.

1975 – Bush Fires Branch integrated with the State Emergency Services (SES), renamed Bush Fire Service. Helicopters used for the first time in firefighting.

1983 – Basic training modules introduced, which began the formalised State-wide training system – a system that would be adopted later by other bush fire services in Australia. Educational resource materials also produced and provided to local councils, community organisations, and schools. Land managers and participating organisations encouraged to establish committees responsible for coordinating all fire and fire-related activities within the Council area.

1985 – administrative changes brought a review of Workers Compensation provisions for volunteers and an upgrade to the Operations Centre. The upgrade provided the latest weather recording and communications equipment available at that time. Seven Regional Fire Associations formed to exercise functional responsibility for fire trail construction and protection measures on unoccupied Crown Land.

Late 1980’s – development of Australian Inter-service Incident Management System (AIIMS) and its Incident Control System (ICS). AIIMS provides a consistent, universally understood and applied system to manage complex multi-agency operations. AIIMS is often applied to bushfire but it can operate effectively for any type of incident. The ICS is a set of personnel, policies, procedures, facilities, and equipment integrated into a common structure designed to facilitate and improve multi-agency emergency response operations.

1990 – The NSW Department of Bush Fire Services made responsible for the management of the Bush Firefighting Fund which was coordinated in conjunction with local government. The fund resourced the 2,500 Bush Fire Brigades with the design and provision of equipment.

1994 – In response to the 1994 Sydney bushfires, Fire & Rescue NSW initiates the Community Fire Unit program for residents in urban areas near bushland. Today, over 600 units exist with over 7,000 volunteer members across metropolitan and regional NSW.

1997 – Coronial inquiry into 1993-94 fires resulted in Government introducing legislation to create the Rural Fire Service. Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) enacted. The act enabled preparation of risk management plans with a range of treatments, in recognition that protecting communities in bush fire prone areas involved more than simply managing fuel.

2002 – Amendments to the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) formalised the NSW RFS role in regulating development in bush fire prone areas; improved the reporting of bush fire hazard complaints by enabling the community to formally complain about bush fire hazards on public and private lands; and required the preparation of a Bush Fire Environmental Code which streamlined environmental approvals for hazard reductions and transferred responsibility to the NSW RFS for environmental approvals.

2012 – The NSW RFS remains the largest volunteer firefighting organisation in the world. For the year ending July 2012, a total of 70,246 volunteers responded to 18,913 events across NSW.

From 1957 to now – improved hazard reduction

Since the 1957 fires, hazard reduction operations have become more coordinated and widespread.  In the 2011-12 fiscal year, the RFS undertook 2,292 hazard reduction works comprising approximately 28,748 hectares of land and protecting a total number of 48,307 assets worth a value of $21.3 billion (NSW RFS 2012).  These hazard reduction works are directed at reducing the intensity of fires.  They do not stop fires altogether, but rather recognise that many fires of low intensity are more manageable than a single fire of high intensity.

Although the NSW RFS undertakes hazard reduction works across the landscape, it is the landowner’s responsibility for reducing hazards on his or her own land.  The Act provides a streamlined approval process for landholders wanting to undertake hazard reduction works on their own land.  Under the Bush Fire Environmental Assessment Code, a NSW RFS officer may assess your activity and issue you an environmental approval (i.e. a Hazard Reduction Certificate) free of charge (see below).  Further advice as to hazard reduction on your own property can be obtained by contacting your local Fire Control Centre, which for the Blue Mountains is in Katoomba.

The Act also allows for you to lodge a complaint if you feel other public or private land presents a bushfire hazard.  After the RFS arranges an inspection of the site in question, the RFS can issue a Bush Fire Hazard Reduction Notice to the landowner or manager requesting the hazard to be mitigated.  If the landowner does not comply with the notice, the RFS can remove the hazard at the landowner’s cost.  Complaints may be made by contacting your local Fire Control Centre, which for the Blue Mountains is in Katoomba, or by visiting the NSW RFS website and filling in an Online Bush Fire Hazard Complaint Form (see below).

Further information and links:

 

From 1957 to now – better building standards

The introduction of special building standards that apply to properties within bush fire prone land is an important component of a multifaceted approach to bushfire risk management.

In 1957, urban planning and individual developments did not account for whether an area was prone to bushfire.  Furthermore, standards did not exist that regulated the materials used in buildings.

Today, councils maintain maps that designate bush fire prone land within their local government areas.  Bush fire prone land is land that can carry a bushfire, designated as Category 1 or 2 vegetation, or land subject to bushfire attack, designated as a bushfire buffer.  Category 1 vegetation appears as orange on the map and represents forests, woodlands, heathlands, pine plantations and wetlands.  Category 2 vegetation appears as yellow on the map and represents grasslands, scrublands, rainforests, open woodlands and mallee.  A buffer zone of 100m around Category 1 vegetation and of 30m around Category 2 vegetation is designated in red on bush fire prone land maps to denote the likelihood of bushfire attack.

Further information and links:

  • To see if your property is classified as bushfire prone, visit the interactive maps provided by Blue Mountains City Council (http://www.bmcc.nsw.gov.au/bmccmap/parcel_search.cfm).  Enter your street address and town into the Address Search.  Click “Submit,” and identify your property in the list.  Select “View Map” (on the left).  When the map is displayed, select the “Map – Bush Fire Prone Land” selection under the “Select a map view” drop down list.  A map like the one above should appear, with red/orange overlay for the bushfire prone land.
  • Planning for Bushfire Protection 2006 may be downloaded at http://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/file_system/attachments/State08/Attachment_20070301_0A17F845.pdf
  • Construction standards for bush fire prone land are given in Australian Standard AS3959 – Construction in bush fire-prone areas. http://www.as3959.com.au/

Australian Fire Authority Council (2004) The Australasian Inter-service Incident Management System: A Management System for any Emergency. Australian Fire Authority Council: East Melbourne. Available at: http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/edu/docs/cem/Comparative%20EM%20-%20Session%2021%20-%20Handout%2021-1%20AIIMS%20Manual.pdf

Bean, J. (2002) The implementation of the incident control system in NSW: Span of Control and Management by Objectives. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management 17(3):8-16. Available at: http://www.em.gov.au/Documents/Implementation%20of%20the%20Incident%20Control%20System%20in%20NSW.pdf

BMWHI (2007) Report on Grose Valley Fire Forum, Mount Tomah Botanic Garden, Saturday 17th February 2007. Available at http://www.bmwhi.org.au/docs/gvff.pdf

Ellis, S., Kanowski, P, and Whelan, R. (2004) National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra. Available at: http://www.coagbushfireenquiry.gov.au/report/pdfs/report_large_size.pdf

NSW Rural Fire Service (2012) Annual Report 2011/12. NSW Rural Fire Service: Lidcombe. Available at: http://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/file_system/attachments/State08/Attachment_20121127_81BAF34A.pdf

NSW Rural Fire Service (2010) Our Service’s story. Available at: http://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/file_system/attachments/State08/Attachment_20130204_643F6C7B.pdf

OEH (2012) Living with Fire in NSW National Parks: A strategy for managing bushfires in national parks and reserves 2012-2021. Office of Environment and Heritage: Sydney South. Available at http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/firemanagement/120690LiveFire.pdf