Wooroloo bushfire WA 2021
Authorities are bracing for what could be the worst fire season since the Black Summer blazes. Image by PR HANDOUT IMAGE PHOTO
  • politics

Labor mulls options to bolster fire-fighting ranks

Poppy Johnston September 24, 2023

Australia may need to consider a national community fire-fighting service akin to the army reserves under a changing climate, a senior government minister says.

Minister for Emergency Management Murray Watt says it could be a way to mobilise young people and get more boots on the ground.

“There probably are young people out there who’d be more interested in providing that kind of community service than they might be for enlisting in the army reserves or things like that,” he told ABC Insiders on Sunday.

Speaking ahead of Monday’s National Bushfire Preparedness Summit, Senator Watt stressed any kind of national service would be voluntary.

“We are facing a difficult changing climate and we need to be ready and we need to think differently,” he said.

Another option for building fire-fighting capability could be a semi-professional model where personnel are paid for large chunks of the fire season.

Finding ways to boost volunteer numbers at the state and territory level was also floated.

“We do need to be cautious about having the federal government overstep its area of responsibility – this is an area that is primarily led by states and territories,” the minister said.

The Department of Home Affairs is currently investigating options to build Australia’s capacity to respond to natural disasters from a personnel and equipment standpoint.

This comes as many local bushfire brigades struggle to recruit enough volunteers.

Relying too heavily on the Australian Defence Force during natural disasters is also not a sustainable option.

Senator Watt said the ADF would always be available if needed but as “a last resort rather than a first port of call”.

“It’s about getting the balance right, and making sure that we are not overly relying on them,” he said.

What could be the worst fire season since the Black Summer blazes is already underway but preparations for the 2023-24 season are well-advanced.

Senator Watt said Australia was “much better prepared” than before the devastating 2019-20 fires.

“We have implemented almost all of the recommendations of the bushfire royal commission that were made to the federal government,” he said.

This includes the set up of one co-ordinated national emergency management agency, making more aircraft available for firefighting and a focus on hazard reduction.

More than 200 representatives from federal, state and territory governments will convene in Canberra on Monday for the first National Bushfire Preparedness Summit, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese set to be among the speakers.