A History of Bush Fire Brigades in Western Australia
The following information was provided in the Bush Fires Board Training Course files during the 1970's - 1980's
The navigators of the 17th century, who approached the west coast of Australia, reported seeing fires on the land. Records of the 1830’s and 1840’s indicated that aboriginals used fires for driving game from thickets of scrub and to induce young growth which would attract the game. It is also recorded that they lit such fires against the wind and were careful to try and control the fires- a matter in which they were reputed to be astonishingly dexterous.
Lieutenant H.W. Bunbury wrote in his diary “by these fires, on the other hand, the country is kept comparatively free from under wood and other obstructions, having the character of an open forest through most parts of which one can ride freely; otherwise in all probability it would soon become impenetrably thick”.
When the early Europeans settlers attempted to emulate the Aboriginals in order to clear land or improve pasture, indiscriminate burning and a lack of knowledge of fire behaviour soon led to an intolerable situation. This, coupled to the fire weather experienced in the state every summer, impressed on early settlers the need for legal restrictions to control the use of fire.
No machinery was established to bring the new Act into operation other than for the temporary appointment of a Forest Officer to assist in the organisation and formation of Bush fire Brigades. Many problems began to arise and the Government decided that an advisory committee similar to that which assisted in the preparation of the Act should be made a permanent body, to advise and make recommendations to meet the problems which continually arose.
The present Act was passed by Parliament in December 1954 and came into operation April 1955. It was essentially the product of the two decades that preceded it. In essence, the new Act placed the responsibility for lighting fires upon the individual and the community through the local authority.
The Advisory Committee was reconstituted as a Board, initially of 10 members, having the prime responsibility of administering the Bush Fires Act. Later, membership was increased to 13members. In addition to its other functions the Board had the power to appoint staff, carry out research concerned with fire protection and publicity campaigns to improve fire prevention measures. Subsequent amendments were undoubtedly influenced by the findings and recommendations of a Royal Commission on Bush Fires following the disastrous fires in 1960/61 and later the Campbell Report in 1970/71. Amendments provide for the implementation of the Board’s policy of decentralised control and to enhance local authorities’ autonomy.
BUSH FIRES BOARD OPERATIONS
The original Advisory Committee had an advisory function only. An officer of the Forests Department was made available as required, principally to assist in the formation and organisation of bush fire brigades.
The first warden was appointed in 1955. His function was to assist local authorities, fire control officers and bush fire brigades in any way possible. In 1956, two further wardens were appointed, one to cover the North and North Eastern area and the other, the South West and Great Southern areas.
In early 1957, the Board conducted its first residential school for brigade and control officers in Perth. During the same year, staff embarked on a limited program of lectures and demonstrations in country centres. These seminars and conferences became a feature of the Board’s operations, increasing in demand as the years went by.
Following the disastrous fires of the 1960/61 season, and the subsequent enquiry, the board undertook to make wardens available to assist local officers to carry out firebreak inspections if requested by local authorities.
By the end of 1969, 10 wardens and 4 trainee wardens were employed. A technical and training officer was appointed during the year.
In September 1972, a senior professional officer of the Forests Department was seconded to the Board as its Chief Executive Officer and technical advisor.
In line with recommendations contained in the Campbell Report, the efforts of the Board and its staff are now directed towards research, education, liaison and advice rather than the enforcement of the Act. These activities met the demands of changing rural needs, attitudes and modern fire protection technology.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE VOLUNTEER BUSH FIRE BRIGADES
The Bush Fires Act 1902 marked a period when agricultural development was gaining impetus in Western Australia. At that time, agricultural was directly mainly to the growing of grains crops. The main ingredients in clearing the land were hard manual work and fire. After harvesting there were little risk to the farmer himself and a considerable amount of burning was permitted at the height of summer so that further development could be pushed along.
By the late 1920’s large numbers of properties were becoming more fully developed in the agricultural areas. Farmers began to exercise greater care as a result of pasture development and stock in areas previously devoted to grain production.
Groups of farmers joined together to control fire outbreaks. In fact it was reported that during the prohibited times, any sign of smoke which indicated a fire would prompt farmers to gather from miles around to deal with the outbreak. As a result of these efforts there developed a self-reliance and recognition of the need to provide fire-fighting equipment and pre-suppression measures on every property. In many cases the rural community formed themselves into volunteer bush fire brigades some 10 years before the 1937 Act was enacted.
From 1940 onwards, organised bush fire brigades were formed throughout most of the agricultural areas. The statistics which follow highlight the growth of the organisation from the time central records were kept in 1940.
The highly decentralised system of fire control in Western Australia has proved its effectiveness by rapid attack on fire outbreaks which would be difficult to achieve by a centralised system no matter how efficient. It has depended mainly upon the involvement of a large proportion of the rural population in brigade organisation and activity over the years.
1980's to 2000's
To be continued
2000's to 2010
To be continued
2010 to Present
To be continued
On September 2nd, 1847, the first ordinance dealing with the control and use of fire was passed. Its provisions required that during the months of September to March any person wilfully ore carelessly setting fire to any vegetation was guilty of an offence. Occupiers of land could light fires at any time in summer providing they did not extend beyond 10 yards (9.1 metres) and providing that the fire did not extend beyond the boundaries of the land. The penalty for an offence was a fine of up to $50 for adults and a public flogging (up to 50 lashes) for a boy under 16 years or a member of the aboriginal inhabitants. The first Bush Fires Act was passed in 1885. The Governor could declare prohibited burning times when no bush could be lit except by an occupier of land, who could do so under prescribed conditions. The penalty of flogging was omitted. In 1902, a new Act was passed. It retained the prohibited burning times provision and introduced a restricted burning time which provided (except during the prohibited time) that an occupier of land could set fire to the bush from October to April. In 1925 an amendment stipulated that the Act was to be administered by the Minister for Lands. Following extensive and often serious fires in the South West covering the period of 1936, a Rural Fire Prevention Advisory Committee was appointed to review the whole of the provisions of the Bush Fires Act. As a result of its recommendations the Bush Fires Act of 1937 was passed.
One of the major purposes of this legislation was to rationalise the prohibited burning times, to avoid the anomalies and dangers which arose from burning times being declared on the recommendation of each local governing authority. The Act also provided the legal basis of Bush Fire Brigades, for their registration and legal protection. Local Government Authorities were given the power to require occupiers of land to provide firebreaks, expend money to control and appoint fire control officer, establish and/or subsidise local fire brigades and to make by-laws under the Act.