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Why won't the VIC government fund this firefighting idea?

VFF_meme_2023.jpgAs we grapple with the impacts of climate change, we will need to continue to expand how we respond to disasters such as fires, floods, storms and heatwaves. We need to increase state-wide ability to respond to individual events and also support local communities to develop their own plans and build their own resilience. When it comes to firefighting we need to continue to build our capacity to respond effectively to fires while they are small, and before they become large, uncontrollable blazes.

Among a range of policy suggestions, one of the proposals that Friends of the Earth (FoE) has been promoting since the Black Summer fires is for Victoria to establish a volunteer remote area firefighting team within the CFA, often called RAFTs or Remote Area Firefighting Teams. This proposal was included (again) in our submission to the state government budget process. The 2024/25 state budget was released on May 7.

Our proposal was for a pilot program, which could be established for under $200,000, so it was disappointing to see there was no funding allocated to this idea.

Most other Australian states and territories already have RAFT teams. They are a cheap way to add ‘first strike’ firefighting capacity to the forces available in bad fire weather conditions. Our proposal would be unique in Australia in that we recommend that it be focused on recruiting people who live in Melbourne who have a love for national parks and other wild places but who live too far from a CFA brigade to be able to volunteer with that organisation. It would attract young and diverse people to the CFA. These people would only need to be mobilised during peak periods and so these teams would be cheap to maintain as they would need not need new investments like fire stations or large firefighting trucks.

There are precedents for having a specialist unit within the CFA. There are already a range of specialist teams within the CFA (such as the Oscar 1 mine rescue group, steep angle and road rescue brigades, and even coast guard brigades).

After the state budget was released (our response is here), Public Accounts and Estimate Committee (or PAEC) hearings are held to drill into the detail of what is contained in the budget.

Our proposal is primarily covered by the portfolio of the Emergency Services minister, Jaclyn  Symes. We were pleased to see the minister focusing on government support for volunteers in her presentation in PAEC. There were some substantial investments in emergency management (around $385 million) and direct support for volunteering. It was also heartening to see the minister raise the need to continue to make emergency volunteering a safe and welcoming option for women. The government is focusing on helping to build diversity within volunteer organisations like the CFA and SES.

The minister clearly understands the reality of climate change and the need to consider this when planning for emergencies: “climate change is seeing more frequent and intense events. These are becoming increasingly difficult to respond to due to the compounding impacts of multiple events”.

We were pleased to see mention of our volunteer firefighting proposal at PAEC. Greens MP Aiv Puglielli asked a series of questions about this proposal and why it wasn’t funded. The minister said she is ‘aware of community interest’ in the proposal, that she doesn't oppose the proposal, and that for it to be funded will require her and the environment minister to co-operate and that she would rely on the views of Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) and the Environment Department (DEECA) in making a decision. The minister noted that ‘surge capacity’ for firefighting already comes from the suburbs. This means that in bad fire conditions, the CFA brigades on the fringes of Melbourne provide lots of people to assist with firefighting efforts. However, when local brigade members are sent away on strike team deployment, this means there are fewer people available to fight any local fires that might happen on that day. Imagine if we had several hundred additional volunteers who were available at short notice to be deployed into likely fire zones who are not from the brigades on the urban fringe.

Our proposal for a stand alone volunteer remote area firefighting makes sense. It will provide opportunities for many urban based people to get involved in firefighting and boost overall volunteer numbers. It provide new volunteers at a very small cost. When will the ministers get around to supporting this idea? $200,000 is about a third of the cost of a single fire truck.

Find out more - take action

You can find out more about our proposal here.

You can indicate your interest in this team here.

You can see a list of the groups that support the proposal here.





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