Gaps in preparedness flagged ahead of bushfire season

Queensland emergency services are not fully prepared for a worsening bushfire threat despite earlier recommendations, the state’s auditor says.

Published just weeks out from the start of bushfire season, a new report from the Queensland Audit Office says that “more work is needed” by the state’s emergency fire services to protect communities against unnecessarily high bushfire risks.

Auditor-General Brendan Worrall found that Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) only “partially implemented” seven recommendations he had made in a 2015 audit.

That audit found Queensland was “not as prepared for the threat of bushfires as it could be” because emergency services were focused on responses at the detriment of mitigation programs, leaving communities in high-risk locations exposed.

The auditor’s latest report came as the State Government last week launched its Get Ready Week campaign urging Queenslanders to prepare as the state faces an increased risk from November through to April.

The government urged Queenslanders to create a household emergency plan and evacuation kit ahead of the summer months.

In his latest report, the Queensland auditor put the total loss from bushfires in Australia over the past four decades at $5.6 billion, while citing research that warned bushfire seasons will lengthen in frequency and intensity.

Responses ‘still lack coordination’

Five of the Queensland auditor’s earlier recommendations were due for implementation by 2015.

Among the recommendations was the need to formalise the role of fire management groups, amend bushfire mitigation plans, develop and implement a strategy to address arson, and work with councils to develop local bushfire plans in high-risk areas.

Arrangements to support vulnerable residents during a disaster “still lack coordination,” while QFES continues to use tools such as emergency alerts, early warning systems and fire danger rating signs despite “limited assurance” these are operating effectively.

“While QFES has advised that the early warning systems are not the most effective means for delivering bushfire warnings compared to other forms such as social media and its website, these systems are still used to inform communities of a bushfire threat,” Mr Worrall found.

The audit also identified a failure by the QFES to fully roll out its new risk mitigation systems, pointing to the need for more training to ensure these systems are effectively used.

Evaluation systems are also needed to measure the effectiveness of mitigation activities, the audit found.

Professor Ross Bradstock, director at the University of Wollongong’s Centre for Environmental Management of Bushfires, said that similar shortfalls have previously been called out in other states.

“In general terms, deficiencies in bushfire preparedness have been identified in many inquiries, most notably in the royal commission into 2009 bushfires in Victoria,” he told Government News.

“It’s fair to say most jurisdictions have made big changes in response to inquiries such as the royal commissions.”

The extensive nature of these oversights is a consequence of the complexity of bushfire management and mitigation, Professor Bradstock says.

“There are many things we can do to mitigate the risk of bushfire – of course, it’s very expensive and getting the right mix and balance of priorities is a formidable challenge.”

Local risk mitigation

Elsewhere the auditor found that the QFES had just started to develop bushfire risk mitigation plans at a local government level.

“Without these plans, and because QFES is not appropriately covering the recovery element, it is not addressing all key phases of disaster management as required by the Queensland State Disaster Management Plan,” the auditor said.

Bushfire planning documents were also found to not include the element of recovery, despite covering prevention, preparedness and response.

Professor Bradstock agreed that bushfire response planning is crucial.

“It’s incredibly important to assist people who have been adversely affected through that time. There are major issues around insurance, rebuilding and ensuring the mental health of those affected. It is a very important facet of whole fire management,” he said.

The auditor said the QFES is better engaging with stakeholders to coordinate mitigation activities but needs to “improve its collaboration” with land managers and local governments to “better identify bushfire risks and to prioritise mitigation activities.”

Responding to the auditor’s recommendations, commissioner Katarina Carroll said that the QFES has “increased its focus on the prevention, preparedness and recovery aspects of its work, including bushfire management, without compromising its operational response capabilities.”

Ms Carroll said that the service will “continue to work with local government to establish further AFMG’s, especially in Indigenous local government areas”

Government News recently reported on the Australian Capital Territory’s launch of a world-first bushfire map to help residents and authorities visualise areas vulnerable to bushfire.

Professor Bradstock said that encouraging residents to take action to mitigate threats on their own properties is essential.

“Communication between authorities and informing people of the level of risk that they individually are exposed to and helping people to understand how they personally can change their level of risk through activities they can engage in is a very important thing,” he said.

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