As Australia faces what is expected to be one of the worst bushfire seasons in years concerns are being raised over the declining numbers of volunteers available to fight the likely catastrophic blazes.
Queensland, one of the most high-risk states in the country, has already seen homes evacuated and thousands of hectares of land scorched this month. Residents on the Sunshine Coast have had their homes threatened this week as the brutal heatwave sweeping the country intensified, while on Wednesday a large fire was burning near Townsville.
Tasked with protecting 93 per cent of the state, the Rural Fire Brigade Queensland (RFSQ) now has only 26,000 members, an enormous drop from 36,000 just four years prior.
The organisation's numbers are dwarfed by the NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS), whose 72,855 volunteers make up the world's largest volunteer fire service and authorities are rightly concerned about the RFSQ's ability to combat widespread fires.
With the Bureau of Meteorology officially declaring an El Nino climate event on Tuesday, hotter, drier weather will be here to stay for the next few months and with it comes an increased bushfire risk. Queensland is one of the states expected to cop the brunt of the extremes.
What will fewer volunteers mean for Queensland fires?
Volunteers will 'burn out'
With such a terrifying outlook for the months ahead and bushfires already taking hold across the country, Justin Choveaux, General Manager of RFBAQ, said "we have never run out of brigade members before", but there is a "desperate" need for more volunteers to spread the load.
"They all want to defend the land....[but] with lower numbers, volunteers burn out so much sooner," he told Yahoo News.
"If you are a brigade member who has left, please consider coming back."
Losing volunteers means losing local knowledge
RFSQ volunteers belong to 1,400 rural fire brigades across the huge state, each "looking slightly different to another", Mr Choveaux said. "Some [rural brigades] are made up of three or four people who are landowners, and some are larger, with equipment like cranes."
With such diverse landscapes, and volunteers with generations of experience fighting fires in their local areas, rural volunteers "know how the fire moves in their local environment," Mr Choveaux said. This means they have "lost a lot of history when losing [so many] volunteers".
Why volunteer firefighter numbers are down
Red tape delays new members
"People want to volunteer and help their community, but there are so many barriers for volunteers," Mr Choveaux told Yahoo News Australia. "The hoops you have to go through and the time it takes, people give up. People can't get in, and are treated poorly, and that's what we have to change."
In July, data collected from workshops across the state was released by the Rural Fire Brigades Association Queensland (RFBAQ). It revealed red tape and complex communication lines were some of the biggest issues faced by volunteer rural firefighters.
"Training doesn't reflect volunteer needs. Too complex, needs to be delivered at brigade level," one member said. "Keeping members is hard, [there's] too much bureaucracy. Red tape is a big issue. [We're] losing members due to Bluecard red tape," another added.
Funding a major issue for RFSQ
Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES), which is the paid fire service, covers the remaining 7 per cent of Queensland, including metropolitan areas, in addition to bushfire attendance.
In July 2021, consultancy firm KPMG released an independent review of Queensland fire services. It showed that Queensland spends significantly less per volunteer than any other state or territory, with Queensland spending between 4.7 and 8.4 times less per volunteer relative to Victoria, NSW and South Australia. Following the review, the government has begun implementing reforms and has increased investment in Queensland's rural fire brigade.
Volunteer numbers declining around the country
Diminishing volunteer numbers is not exclusive to Queensland. Victoria is also facing declining volunteer numbers this year, with Country Fire Authority (CFA) brigades in regional and rural Victoria launching a campaign in May called Give Us a Hand, to try combat dropping numbers.
Country Fire Authority now has just 28,785 volunteers, a huge drop from 38,335 in 2014, new data reveals.
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