Greek fire tragedy could be repeated here

4 Sep 2007

Fire tragedies, such as those in Greece and four years ago in Canberra, have been blamed on the failings of city-based central fire services. Rural fire experts say a similar tragedy could occur in New Zealand if internal affairs minister Rick Barker goes ahead with a plan to centralise fire services.

“Mr Barker is doing away with a highly efficient rural fire service in favour of centralising all rural fire control in Wellington,” says NZ Forest Owners Association fire spokesman Kerry Ellem.

“The international lesson is that centralising fire control leads to a blow-out in costs and loss of rural fire expertise. Combine that with climate instability and the removal of grazing animals from much of the South Island high country and you have a tragedy in the making.”

He says that since 1990 the area damaged by rural fires in New Zealand each year has fallen by 50%.

“That’s because under the present system communities take responsibility for their own fire prevention and control. There is a rapid and efficient response, using local equipment, expertise and manpower,” Mr Ellem says.

“Countries with centralised fire management bureaucracies like that proposed by the minister see ours as a model of efficiency.

“Given the tragic events of recent weeks, minister Barker should explain why he plans to base rural fire management in New Zealand on a model which has shown to be a deadly and disastrous failure elsewhere.”

In December 2006, Canberra coroner Maria Doogan released her inquest report into the 2003 Australian Capital Territory Fires in which four fires linked to form a firestorm. Four people were killed, 500 homes destroyed and 85 percent of the territory’s bushland burnt.

She cited the ACT Government's failures in preparation, fire fighting strategy and public warnings. Links with the community were seriously deficient.

Ms Doogan attributed these failures to a management system that was focused on the dominance of power in a top-down bureaucracy.

In Greece, the decision of the Greek Government to move responsibility for rural fire management from the Greek Forest Service to the city-based Greek Fire Service was blamed for a series of severe fires in 1998 and 2000.

In a report in International Fire News Gavriil Xanthopoulos, a Greek forest fire specialist, describes the Greek Fire Service as a “top-down” structure, which allows mobility of resources between regions, but “often results in fire fighting being coordinated not by the best qualified people but by those with the highest rank” .

Mr Xanthopoulos recommended in 2000 that there should be closer cooperation with the land manager (in that case the Greek Forest Service), with greater emphasis on active management to reduce risk.

“If these changes did not happen he foresaw a continuing fall in the effectiveness of fire management in spite of more money being spent on fire fighting. The fires of recent weeks suggest he was right,” Mr Ellem says.

“In a follow-up paper in 2004, Mr Xanthopoulos identified a number of pitfalls in the Greek system which ought to make salutary reading for the Department of Internal Affairs officials and minister Barker.

“The Greek decision to transfer responsibility for fire fighting was political, lacked justification, and was clearly one-sided, since it focused solely on fire suppression. This is also true of the Barker plan.”

Mr Ellem says successful rural fire management is based on what are known as the ‘four Rs’ – risk reduction, maintaining readiness, response, and recovery – within a structure which values communication, cooperation with people who understand land management and vegetation fires, local knowledge and the spirit of volunteerism.

“Mr Xanthopoulos says Greek politicians understand very little about rural fire prevention. Their interest and support is devoted to visible aspects of forest fires such as fire suppression, which gets all the funding,” Mr Ellem says.

“This is very clearly repeated in the Barker plan. The proposed national fire service gets all the funding. There is no funding for risk reduction and readiness.”

[Sources]

Maria Doogan 2006. The Canberra Firestorm: Inquests and Inquiry into four deaths and four fires between 8 and 18 January 2003.

Xanthopoulos, G. 2000. Fire Situation in Greece. International Forest Fire News. (ECE/FAO) 23: 76-84

Xanthopoulos, G. 2004. Who should be responsible for forest fires? Lessons from the Greek experience. In: Book of abstracts of the “II International Symposium on Fire Economics, Planning and Policy: A Global View”; 2004 April 19-22, Cordoba, Spain. University of Cordoba, Spain, and the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station; p128.

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