Money to fund a Western Australian rural fire service (RFS) is “already there” but is not being spent effectively, the WA Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades says.
An Economic Regulation Authority report found it would cost the state as much as $560 million each year to fund a RFS manned by professional firefighters.
In addition, it says property owners would pay $580.84 per annum — an increase of 166 per cent — in the Emergency Services Levy (ESL).
The other alternative mooted was a $4.2 million volunteer-based structure, where the ESL would only increase by 1.1 per cent.
But WA Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades vice president Phil Penny said a RFS was “an absolute necessity” and could be run by volunteers.
“We’ve got volunteers who are committed, they’re experienced, they’re knowledgeable,” Mr Penny said.
“We can do that job and save the state a whole lot of money.
“If we can prove to the Government that it can be cost neutral, the Government hasn’t got any reason to walk away from a rural fire service.”
Labor Government hesitant over cost of RFS
A key recommendation from a report into last year’s Yarloop bushfires, which killed two people and destroyed nearly 200 properties, was the establishment of a RFS.
That recommendation had support from the previous State Government but the new Labor Government has been hesitant over cost and additional unwanted bureaucracy.
The report found the cost and impact on the ESL would vary widely depending on whether the firefighters involved were professional or volunteers.
The ESL is levied through council rates each year and the amount paid varies according to the location of a property.
This year it is projected to raise more than $350 million and volunteer firefighters believe it would cover the cost of a RFS if it was better spent.
“The Government is using those figures to scare the public into thinking we just can’t afford it,” Mr Penny said.
“Somewhere between $4.2 million and $100 million you would come up with a suitable service that would ensure local governments are prepared, the brigades are well equipped and we can carry out that function that we need to protect our communities.”
Esperance famers support change
Farmer Linda Campbell has been fighting for reform since losing three farm workers in the 2015 Esperance bushfire. (ABC News: Mark Bennett)
Farmers in the Esperance region are backing another recommendation in the report, which would strip the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DEFS) of responsibility for the ESL.
Instead, it recommended a new office of emergency management advise the Government on levy rates, and how money should be spent.
Farmer Linda Campbell, who has been fighting for reform since losing three farm workers in the 2015 bushfires in Esperance, has welcomed the recommendation.
“It’s like the lion in charge of the meat box, which is what basically DFES is doing by controlling its own funding,” Ms Campbell said.
“So I think, that all us have to go cap in hand to this independent body, will only be a good thing for the levy.”