As bushfire season approaches, we need to take action to recruit more volunteer firefighters




Amanda Davies, University of Western Australia

Across rural Australia, volunteer-run bushfire brigades have long been a central part of the life of the towns. Volunteer brigades provide the frontline defence against bushfires, and also undertake bushfire prevention and mitigation activities.

These frontline volunteer firefighters are supported by many others, including those who step up to support the families and businesses of volunteer firefighters while they are away fighting fires.

With rural Australia already facing a major volunteer shortage, and bushfires projected to become increasingly frequent and prolonged, it is vital we consider new ways to support the rural volunteer labour force.

Volunteer saturation in rural Australia

Rural Australia has long relied on an army of volunteers. However, an increase in the demands on volunteers’ time has eroded the capacity for further work to be absorbed.

The increase in demand on volunteers has been driven, in part, by the consolidation of government services into larger cities and centres, meaning smaller communities need to provide more essential and social services through volunteer organisations. It has also been driven by an increase in regulation of volunteer activities, particularly essential service provision, with more time needed to be dedicated to training, reporting and compliance activities.




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Our research revealed that population change across rural Australia has also presented challenges. For some places, population decline and ageing have had the dual impact of increasing the need for volunteer services, while reducing the number of available volunteers.

For other places, particularly those experiencing people moving to the town for lifestyle reasons population growth has increased the pool of potential volunteers. But newer residents have been less likely to become involved in traditional volunteering organisations.

For volunteer bushfire brigades, our research revealed an intensification in centralised regulation and compliance requirements. This in turn increased the time volunteers needed to commit to their local bushfire brigade. This increased time commitment presented a barrier to volunteers either remaining involved or becoming involved in their local brigade.

Our research also found this greater regulation has come at a time when people are increasingly seeking to volunteer in less formal and more occasional ways. For volunteer bushfire brigades, where regular engagement is required, this preference for episodic volunteering is a concern.




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As bushfires intensify, we need to acknowledge the strain on our volunteers


Why do we rely on volunteers?

The collective volunteering effort put towards fighting bushfires in Australia is immense, and it would be too expensive to fully professionalise firefighting services. Australia’s volunteer firefighters contribute between A$1.2 billion and A$2 billion in labour per year.

This assessment is based only on reported incidents, and does not include time volunteers spend on small fires, mitigation activities, gear maintenance, fundraising and training. This assessment of value also does not include the efforts of those who support volunteers while they are on the front line.

Fire events are also sporadic, with the risk greatly increased in some years and much less in others. Given the geographic spread of Australia’s population, effectively distributing a professional volunteer fire service would be exceptionally challenging.

Being involved in volunteering is also important for well-being and social connections. For many, being a volunteer firefighter is a way of life and a part of who they are.

Could new volunteer firefighters be recruited from cities?

With rural volunteering at saturation, it might be time to look further afield for volunteer labour.

Australia’s devastating bushfires of 2019-20 thrust into broader public consciousness the crucial role of rural volunteer firefighters. This period saw huge bushfires burn up to the outskirts of the largest cities and population hubs – and on numerous fronts.

Just over 10% of Australia’s population faced a direct threat from the bushfires and more than 14 million people were impacted by bushfire smoke. With the fires burning more than 18 million hectares, volunteer and professional firefighters were spread thin across the extensive fronts. The Australian Defence Force was mobilised to assist, including evacuating trapped residents and holidaymakers.

During this period, many people sought ways to help not just those directly impacted by bushfires, but also those fighting the fires.




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However, firefighting is something that requires extensive training, and regular commitment. Past volunteers who sought to be involved in the firefighting effort had to be turned away as they did not have current training.

There is a need to expand the volunteer bushfire labour force. There is very little, or no more, capacity in rural communities. If we are going to turn to city populations to assist, then planning and preparation are needed.

We are now on the cusp of the next fire season. The Royal Commission into the National Natural Disaster Arrangements is set to deliver its findings on October 28. A huge volume of material has been submitted to its hearings, including more than 1,700 submissions from the public.

There seems an appetite for change. However, this summer we will again be looking to the same fire crews, the same volunteers, who spent last summer fighting fires on multiple fronts.The Conversation

Amanda Davies, Professor, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia relies on volunteers to monitor its endangered species



File 20180608 191943 14qfk2l.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Nik Borrow/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Matthew H Webb, Australian National University; David M Watson, Charles Sturt University, and Dejan Stojanovic, Australian National University

The King Island Scrubtit and the King Island Brown Thornbill have the dubious distinction of being considered the first and third most likely birds to go extinct in the next 20 years.

Yet the only reason we know the status of the scrubtit and the thornbill is the diligent efforts of volunteers.




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For 15 years, the Threatened Species Committee has quietly summarised the plight of Australia’s most endangered birds, feeding the information to government, including the most recent report on those species most likely to go extinct in the coming two decades.

Experts in conservation management, specialist bird researchers, dedicated birders, and passionate local landholders all give their time freely to monitor endangered species. This is not outsourcing by the government: this is unpaid work by dedicated Australians stepping up.

King Island crisis

For these two King Island species, the most current information came from surveys conducted by specialist ornithologists, who funded the surveys themselves. In surveys completed this year, a handful of scrubtit were found in just three locations. The thornbill wasn’t found at all.

Follow-up surveys at these sites throughout King Island were carried out as part of the Wings on King initiative, with local landholders and visiting birders teaming up to tally records.

Like most of southern Australia, the native vegetation of King Island has been extensively cleared. This clearing is ongoing, and slated changes to Tasmanian planning laws would allow farmers to remove up to 40 hectares per year.

A key driver of this process is the influx of beef producers to the island, attracted by King Island’s rich soils and reliable rainfalls. Large operators are moving from Queensland and buying up prime grazing land, changing the way the land is used.

Many of these changes are bad news for local wildlife. Shelterbelts and remnant forests are making way for grass to feed ever more beef cattle.

This is alarming enough for the scrubtits, for which we at least have some baseline population data and knowledge of habitat requirements. It may be even worse for the thornbill – but we can’t be sure because we know so little about its habitat requirements or key locations.

Fire is another major threat. Uncontrolled bushfires razed almost a quarter of the island in 2007, decimating the Melaleuca Swamp forest at Nook Swamp, the last stronghold for the scrubtits. Only fragments of the swamp remain. This fire also exacerbated acid sulfate soils in unburned habitats, compromising regeneration in the wetland.

Shedding staff

Yet despite these mounting challenges, the federal Department of Environment is shedding vital staff. Just last month the loss of 60 positions from the biodiversity division was announced, representing a third of the people charged with overseeing monitoring of our threatened species.

Tasmania, despite being home to more than 600 threatened species, has a threatened species section of effectively two full-time positions (one of which is not currently filled). They have an annual budget of about A$5,000, or roughly A$7.14 per species).

This abrogation of biodiversity monitoring and basic conservation management is not new. State and federal departments have been losing capacity for decades.

The embedded research units within these agencies are all but gone, and any long-term monitoring is conducted either with external funds or through dedicated individuals nearing retirement. Entire national parks have been handed over to NGOs to manage, like Pilliga and Mallee Cliffs National Parks in New South Wales. NGOs now manage an estate many times larger than our national parks.

Federal funding has shrunk dramatically, with researchers increasingly reliant on philanthropic trusts, mining offsets, and crowdfunding campaigns to cover the costs of last-ditch interventions.

Another way

You don’t have to look very far to find alternatives. New Zealand has just announced a major increase in investment in endangered species funding, $181.6 million in additional funds for conservation initiatives over the next four years.

New Zealand has long been an international leader in conservation management, eradicating feral animals from entire islands to safeguard wildlife. It is ramping up efforts under the Predator Free New Zealand initiative, which aims to eradicate all introduced predators by 2050 in what has been described as “the most ambitious conservation project anywhere in the world”.

In contrast, the deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub recently pointed out that a third of Australia’s most threatened species aren’t monitored at all.




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Protecting endangered species: 6 essential reads


The ConversationEleventh-hour funding will be too late for King Island’s thornbill. It hasn’t been seen since a keen-eyed photographer happened across a single bird in 2016. Despite the valiant efforts of volunteers, inspirational videos, and direct representations and grant applications, it has an estimated 6% chance of surviving the next 20 years.

Matthew H Webb, Dr Matt Webb, Australian National University; David M Watson, Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University, and Dejan Stojanovic, Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.