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Byron Shire
May 8, 2021

The cost of bushfires

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The fire season has started early this year and is running hot with thousands of acres being burnt. You don’t need to look further than the recent loss of lives, houses and animals – not to mention the disastrous impact on wildlife – at Rappville (see p16), Wardell, Drake, Tenterfield, Binna Burra – the list continues to grow.

The cost of bushfires in lives is high and the dollar value of lost homes and properties is already in the multi-millions of dollars this year in NSW alone. Yet the entire response system relies on volunteer fire fighters who receive no payment or compensation for their time. The Rural Fire Service (RFS) and State Emergency Services (SES) are struggling to recruit younger members and this system is becoming extremely vulnerable.

Seventy thousand of the people we rely on to contain and put out current and future blazes across NSW are volunteers. These women and men not only give up their time throughout the year to train and learn the skills they need to fight fires safely, but also are then called upon to fight the fires both locally and in other regions.

The local volunteer fire brigades have been calling heavily on their volunteers recently to form teams to go, at times for up to five days, to places like Drake, Tenterfield and Wardell to fight the fires.

They are not paid, and while large companies do often continue to pay their RFS volunteer employees when they are called out, most volunteers are giving up their paid employment to fight the fires. For a small local business owner or employee, sole trader or freelancer to go and fight the fires costs them their wages and potential future business every time they are called away. This is the same for the SES, whose volunteers respond to the needs of the community during flooding and extreme weather events.

These groups are always seeking new volunteers to come on board and train. Yet they are struggling to attract younger members who have the time to both train and then attend callouts.

Volunteer services like the RFS and SES were often started by the community in response to a need to provide training and coordinated responses to fire and flooding. They are based on the need to come together to help each other – often because there would otherwise be no help. But as local populations grow and demographics change, they bring the expectation that the services they are used to receiving in the cities will be provided in rural regions – without their involvement. The result is that it is becoming more challenging to provide a volunteer response in emergencies.

We live in a world where everyone seems to be running flat-out just to keep up with their own lives, from jobs and children to social media. The cost of not having a strong base of volunteers needs to be addressed by government at all levels.

The government needs to recognise the increasing risk of fires and flooding because of the impacts of the climate emergency and a surging population. The important role these people play needs to be recognised with some form of payment or compensation for their service and loss of income. 

You can join the RFS or SES from the age of 16. To get involved contact your local brigade or go online to apply. RFS: www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/volunteer/Join-the-NSW-RFS or SES: www.ses.nsw.gov.au/volunteer.

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