PEER PRESSURE PRACTICE

Farmers unite in their views against CFS volunteers halting harvest

The general consensus from speakers at the public hearing of the Select Committee on the Fire and Emergency Services Bill last Thursday at Balaklava was to ‘leave things as they are’.

Held in the Phil Barry Chamber of Wakefield Regional Council, presentations were made by council representatives from Wakefield Regional, Light, Adelaide Plains, Clare and Gilbert Valleys, Yorke Peninsula and Goyder, along with Regional Development Australia – Yorke and Mid North chairman, Bill Vandepeer.

Submissions were then made by numerous people, including Agbyte director and agronomist Leighton Wilksch, farmers Paul Daniel and Peter White, and CFS group officers Phillip Earl and Andrew Allchurch.

Leighton was keen for SA not to follow in the footsteps of WA, that has a blanket state ban on harvest/farm activities if a Total Fire Ban, and Harvest and Vehicle Movement Ban, are in place.

“There is an extreme variability in weather conditions around our state, so it should be up to the locals, region-by-region, to make the decisions,” he said.

Naturally there was discussion on WHO would make the decisions, with council fire prevention officers, CFS members and police officers all being thrown into the ring.

Other discussion took place on firebreaks, the farming Code of Practice, changing the FDI (Fire Danger Index), types of crops, especially flammable crops like chickpeas, vetch and lentils, and excessive fuel loads in cereal crops.

“I think changing from the current FDI of 35 will lead to more challenges and confusion, and will lead to loss of income too,” Leighton said.

The FDI was set up basically as an indicator, should a fire start, of managing the risk of it spreading, by using combined calculations of wind speed, temperature, humidity and fuel conditions.

He also said the SMS alert system has been working well, and suggested sending those alerts to grain delivery sites in future.

Data collected from Leighton’s 200 weather stations around the state highlighted the variance of FDI indicators during 2018 harvest, and with about 40 more stations to be in place by November, said he hopes to have hour-by-hour information readily accessible for farmers, up to 48 hours in advance, with a weather forecast refined for the FDI.

“Using public and privately owned weather station systems, I’m also hoping to link with the CFS in real time, for next season’s harvest,” he said.

As most farmers would be aware, action taken in the first two minutes of a fire starting, and then in the next 30 minutes, is vital in controlling a fire, and many speakers commented farmers are ‘well equipped’ each harvest with their own fire units.

“Farm groups are strong, the Code of Practice and peer pressure work well, so should weed out those few who push the boundaries and operate outside the current code,” Leighton added.

Data collected from Leighton’s 200 weather stations around the state highlighted the variance of FDI indicators during 2018 harvest, and with about 40 more stations to be in place by November, said he hopes to have hour-by-hour information readily accessible for farmers, up to 48 hours in advance, with a weather forecast refined for the FDI.

“Using public and privately owned weather station systems, I’m also hoping to link with the CFS in real time, for next season’s harvest,” he said.

As most farmers would be aware, action taken in the first two minutes of a fire starting, and then in the next 30 minutes, is vital in controlling a fire, and many speakers commented farmers are ‘well equipped’ each harvest with their own fire units.

“Farm groups are strong, the Code of Practice and peer pressure work well, so should weed out those few who push the boundaries and operate outside the current code,” Leighton added.

 

No need to legislate code of conduct: Growers

Les Pearson reports

MID North farmers were generally united in their views against CFS volunteers being tasked with the responsibility of instructing farmers to cease harvesting.

Those opinions were expressed at the Select Committee public hearing on the Fire And Emergency Services Bill, by growers including Alex O’Loan (Grace Plains), Paul Daniel (Bowmans), Andrew Kitto (Gladstone) and Maurice Wiech (Blyth Plains), who all gave evidence at last week’s hearing.

Mr Kitto, who has also been a CFS volunteer for 20 years, both farms and runs a contract harvesting business.

He suggested the initial response to the proposed powers in the legislation was in opposition to the changes from within the local CFS ranks.

Mr Kitto said there was a feeling the increased powers bestowed on CFS volunteers could harm the relationship between the fire fighting group and farmers.

He also believed the State Government should consider subsidising weather stations for primary producers to help determine the local Fire Danger Index as part of a statewide network, while educational workshops should also be on the radar.

Mr Wiech had concerns surrounding the direction of building the voluntary code of conduct into legislation.

“I fear it won’t be long before Workplace Safety Officers are making inspections on farms,” he said.

His assessment wasn’t far from Mr Daniel’s observation that the responsibility of who decides to cease harvest activity generally lies with the employer and very little worker training around the code of conduct or Fire Danger Index exists at the moment.

Mr O’Loan, President of Owen Agricultural Bureau Branch spoke on behalf of the group, and also as captain of the Mallala CFS Brigade.

“As a group of concerned farmers we believe the proposed amendments to the Fire and Emergency services act don’t take into account the opinions of or the experiences of the broader agricultural community,” he said.

“It is my belief, shared by many of my peers in both farming and CFS, that this legislation needs to include reference to industry codes of practice for safe operations because as the proposed amendment stands, there are no references for an (CFS) officer to make judgement against in his or her decision to direct somebody to cease whatever they are doing.

“As the current proposal stands, it is only the opinion of the CFS officer that counts and certainly in this area there are many CFS officers with limited knowledge of agriculture and how it works and need something to base their judgement against.

“There are also many CFS officers including myself who don’t necessarily want the extra workload of directing people of when to stop their activities.

“I understand that there needs to be a mechanism by which those not doing the right thing need to be stopped but I am not sure it should be the job of a volunteer CFS officer.

“So our suggestion is either leave this part of the act unchanged, or add reference to relevant industry codes of practice to give basis for decision making.”

 

Wakefield CEO summarises community sentiment

Earlier in the day, Wakefield Regional Council acting CEO, Steven Griffiths, presented feedback on behalf of the community.

“For WRC the Pinery Fire of November 25, 2015, with the sad passing of two people and approximately 86,000 hectares burnt out and building and property loss significant, is still front and centre,” he said.

“Thus, this community respects the damage fire can do.

“My belief is, from the comments made to WRC staff, that the Voluntary Code of Practice, using the Grass Fire Danger Index, should remain.

“Farmers have already enacted various measures to reduce the threat of fire, fire fighting equipment in the paddock, utes with pumps and tanks following behind when reaping lentils, regular inspection of machinery etc.

“Many farmers exceed the minimum requirements as it is their livelihood at risk if a fire breaks out.

“Many farmers have weather stations in their paddocks, which can identify the GFDI (Grass Fire Danger Index).

“Concerns are strong on where the CFS, if given the authority to make no reaping decisions,  will be taking their readings from.

“A number of farming groups work in networks, especially when there are high risk weather patterns.

“Generally they will stop earlier than FDI 35 and start when the wind has started dying down.

“Farmers are managing the risks associated with harvesting very well under the current code.

“One point made to me often since the Legislation was introduced is that as CFS is manned by volunteers, do indeed volunteers want the responsibility?

“Volunteers could be put in a compromising position if they are enforcing stoppages – particularly if they own businesses and the farmer they are being asked to stop is a customer.

“During my time as a MP,  I was never supportive of legislation being put in place that took control away from agriculture and put it in the hands of others.

“All agree that reaping must stop in dangerous conditions, but the feedback I have received is to not do it the way envisaged in this legislation.

“Surely the code of practice was originally developed to alleviate the pressures on the CFS and to give farmers greater tools and skills to determine when to stop – allow this to continue.”

 

• Pictured giving evidence last week were growers (from left) Alex O’Loan,Paul Daniel, Maurice Wiech and Andrew Kitto.