Legislative Council: Wednesday, October 18, 2023


Fire Danger Season

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. T.A. Franks:

That this council—

1. Acknowledges that the Bureau of Meteorology has formally declared an El Niño weather event and that risk of a significant fire danger season is higher following an El Niño year;

2. Notes that some South Australian Country Fire Service stations are currently ill-equipped to ensure volunteers' safety and dignity; and

3. Calls on the Malinauskas government to urgently audit current Country Fire Service facilities and fund any identified need.

(Continued from 27 September 2023.)

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI (Leader of the Opposition) (16:56): I rise as the lead speaker for the opposition to thank the Hon. Tammy Franks for bringing this motion forward to the chamber, and indicate our wholehearted support for the motion. El Niño, a climate phenomenon characterised by the periodic warming of ocean temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific, has a significant impact on Australia's fire danger season. The link between El Niño and heightened fire risk in Australia is well established and has been the cause of numerous devastating bushfires in our country's history.

During El Niño events, Australia typically experiences a shift in weather patterns. Warmer and drier conditions prevail, leading to increased evaporation and reduced soil moisture content. These changes in South Australia in particular create a tinderbox effect, making the landscape more susceptible to ignition and rapid fire spread. With vegetation becoming drier and more flammable, even a small spark can lead to a large and uncontrolled wildfire.

The upcoming 2023-24 summer has all the categories of an elevated fire danger season. It poses significant challenges to firefighting efforts, will strain our water resources and may threaten regional communities and ecosystems. In previous summers, El Niño related fires have resulted in loss of life, significant loss of property and decimation of wildlife and landscapes.

Emergency responders are closely monitoring El Niño patterns to anticipate and prepare for heightened fire risk in Australia as summer fast approaches. Adequate preparedness, fire prevention strategies and community education are essential in mitigating the impacts of El Niño induced fire danger. Key to this and key to the honourable member's motion is ensuring our regional Country Fire Service units have resilient measures to address these immediate challenges.

Given the increased risk of a dangerous fire season, it is vital that our South Australian CFS stations are properly equipped to respond to incidents in a safe manner. We owe much to our CFS volunteers, who give up their time and risk their lives to help others. The least we can do is ensure that they have appropriate facilities in order to do that work.

As a country resident, and as a member of a family who has been part of their local CFS, I am proud that the former Liberal government committed funds to upgrading stations around South Australia and also invested in new appliances to support CFS volunteers in keeping the community safe. Examples of this include burnover protection systems, fresh air circulation systems in vehicle cabins, improved crew protection systems, improved water pumping systems, class A foam systems on all firefighting appliances, and electric rewind hose reels.

The stations upgraded under the former government were widespread across 11 sites. I am very proud of that investment. I am proud of the 80 per cent facilities and budget resources increase which came to fruition during our four-year tenure. In addition, there was a separate $97.5 million in response to the independent bushfire review. This included 25 new CFS fire trucks, thermal imaging cameras for various CFS groups, and the use of two Black Hawk helicopters to boost protection for the community and firefighters.

If further needs have been identified—and they have—and the government has been informed that there are additional requirements to keep volunteers in the community safe ahead of the upcoming fire danger season, we the opposition absolutely support that call. An audit, as suggested by the honourable member, is a sensible way to discover and clarify those additional requirements. CFS stations must have a working toilet and handwashing facilities; I would have thought those are fairly basic requirements. There must be appropriate places for volunteers to change and equip up for their duties.

I note the government have put forward an amendment which I can inform the chamber the opposition will not be supporting. At the end of the day, it is all very well for the government to say that they are committed to upgrading facilities, but unless we see action and unless we see actual resources and funding, then those words are just that: words, with no tangible actions or outcomes. Once again, we the opposition support this motion and we strongly support the Country Fire Service and the incredible volunteers who will keep our community safe this summer.

The Hon. C.M. SCRIVEN (Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development, Minister for Forest Industries) (17:01): I move to amend the motion as follows:

Leave out paragraphs 2 and 3 and insert new paragraph as follows:

2. Notes the commitment from the state government and CFS to build and upgrade stations to meet the needs of volunteers.

The South Australian Country Fire Service has declared the season will start two weeks earlier for six fire ban districts, with the Flinders, North East Pastoral, North West Pastoral and West Coast districts going into fire bans on 16 October (Monday just passed), followed by the Mid North and Yorke Peninsula on 1 November. Fire bans will commence for Eastern Eyre on 1 November and on 15 November for the Lower Eyre Peninsula.

These changes have been assessed against what would normally be expected in these six fire ban districts. Consequently, the bushfire management committees in these regions have recommended that the fire danger season in six districts be brought forward earlier than usual.

The start of the fire danger season sends a message to all South Australians to be prepared for the upcoming season, including knowing what they can and cannot do during the fire danger season and particularly on total fire ban days.

As we know, bushfires can happen at any time of the year and it is everyone's responsibility to prepare for bushfires, irrespective of the fire ban district they live in, work at or are likely to visit this summer. I encourage all residents, workers and visitors to any of South Australia's 15 fire ban districts to help reduce their risk by developing a bushfire survival plan.

In this year's budget, the Malinauskas Labor government invested a record $27.6 million in the CFS's aerial firefighting capacity. Five new aircraft will be added to the South Australian Country Fire Service's aerial firefighting fleet this season, increasing the number of aircraft from 26 to 31 and significantly enhancing the state's aerial capability to combat the risk of bushfire. Two South Australian companies, Aerotech and Helifarm, are amongst those to be awarded contracts to lease the services.

This investment will result in quicker responses to fires, more support for frontline firefighters, and better protection for communities across South Australia. It is the biggest investment, I am advised, to upgrade the state's aerial firefighting fleet, with aircraft vital in gathering bushfire information quickly and firebombing in difficult terrain or for dangerous fast-moving fires to assist crews on the ground.

The state government recognises the need to provide appropriate facilities and equipment to those who volunteer to protect the lives and property of others. The amendment that I am moving leaves out paragraphs 2 and 3 and inserts a new paragraph that would read:

2. Notes the commitment from the state government and CFS to build and upgrade stations to meet the needs of volunteers.

The vast majority of the 425 CFS stations across the state have private spaces that can be accessed by members, while others are adjacent to community facilities which can also be used. An amount of $12 million is forecast to be invested into new station builds and upgrades over the next four years in South Australia. Design and construction of new stations is undertaken in consultation with brigades to recognise and reflect their needs.

Many of the stations that are now operated by the CFS were first built by councils before transferring to state government ownership in the 1990s and I am advised a number of them were in poor condition at the time. Since then, upgrades have been prioritised, taking into account the need for toilets and change rooms. As I mentioned, the government has a commitment to continue to build and upgrade stations that will meet the needs of volunteers.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:05): I thank the members who have made a contribution today: the Hon. Nicola Centofanti and the Hon. Clare Scriven, Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development, on behalf of her colleague in the other place.

I note that the Labor Party have sought to congratulate themselves on their amendment, and I urge the council not to give them that congratulation unless they actually do what this motion calls for, and that is an audit and appropriate funding. One would have thought that the minimum that could have been brought forward today would have been a commitment to do that audit.

What we do know from the Greens putting this motion on the agenda is that we have now had some response that some 90 CFS stations do not have toilet facilities but use adjacent community facilities. We do not know how adjacent they are, and we do not know what the operations of those arrangements are. I am informed in some cases there are toilet blocks nearby, but it seems to be incredibly ad hoc.

Even more concerning, however, is that although the minister just alluded to the fact that this was a historic issue stemming from receiving facilities not necessarily in 21st century conditions in the 1990s, the 1990s is a long time ago when we are in 2023.

Members interjecting:

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I remember the Spice Girls as well, the Hon. Ian Hunter, but we have come a long way since then.

The Hon. B.R. Hood interjecting:

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: Nirvana as well, the Hon. Ben Hood. There are so many nineties musical icons, however, I think we would all agree that the facilities of the 1990s are in no way the facilities that we have come to expect in 2023. What I particularly note that has come out of this in response to one of my questions on notice is that of the 420 stations, 345 do not have change rooms. That, to me, seems a minor investment for the value that we would get from the diversity in our volunteer firefighters, giving them the respect and dignity that they deserve as they put their lives on the line—345 out of the approximate 420 stations do not have change facilities.

This certainly goes a long way to a very small investment that could be made to have a very big impact on recruitment and retention and respect and, of course, diversity in our volunteer firefighting service. The $12 million over the next four years quoted by the minister is actually the normal budget allocation for the CFS towards building maintenance.

I am advised by my sources that this equates to $3 million per annum. With an anticipated cost of each CFS station to be close to $1 million, this allows for the construction of approximately three stations per annum, which means that a rebuild program for CFS stations in this state would take approximately 140 years to complete. Clearly, this is far from optimal; indeed, it is possibly farcical.

It would be a responsible and mature approach—and I agree with the CFS Volunteers Association on this—to ensure that any investment of funds into CFS building and maintenance is done wisely and with appropriate prioritisations, and indeed that initial modest investment to do the audit is the first step. I would have hoped that the government would have come to the party with that very first step.

I thank members of this council for their support. I believe the motion will get up unscathed by the attempt of the government to congratulate themselves but not actually do the thing the motion calls for. I hope we do not see this summer as one that in recent years we have come to know as quite devastating for our state.

I congratulate those volunteer firefighters on their efforts to date and I commit that this council, and certainly from my perspective as a member of this council, will do all we can to support you in that extraordinarily difficult, demanding and necessary work. This will be a cruel summer ahead. We have already seen the declaration of the fire season brought forward a couple of weeks. We know that we rely on volunteers to keep our people, property and nature in this state safe in these seasons.

I hope that by the Mid-Year Budget Review we see the Malinauskas government come to the party with a small, modest investment, and the Minister for Emergency Services at least will have effected, through his executive powers, an audit so that we know exactly what we are dealing with. I do hope that we see very shortly those 345 stations that do not currently have change facilities have change facilities installed. With that, I commend the motion and urge council members to oppose the amendment.

Amendment negatived; motion carried.