News & Media

'Victoria's Bushfires - Changing Our Landscape'

By: Mick Bourke

  11.00 AM 22 October, 2010

Views: 12747

I would like to share with you ‘Victoria's Bushfires - Changing Our Landscape', a speech I presented to the AFAC/Bushfire CRC Conference held in Darwin from 8 - 10 September. My speech focused on my observations of CFA and the State in the 18 months or so since 'Black Saturday' and how the landscape we live and operate in has changed in that time.


In setting the scene I need to tell you we are still haunted and driven by 173 lost lives and the lifetime impacts on so many others.

i. Whilst ‘Black Saturday' affected all States and Territories in Australia to some extent, it also impacted on the world scene for a time.

ii. On ‘Black Saturday' we were Prepared, Ready and Fighting.

For days leading up to 7 February the advice ‘from all and to all' was that this was going to be a very dangerous bushfire day, worse even than past days like Ash Wednesday.

The community was besieged with messages to prepare themselves, and the State prepared itself.

Fire Chiefs had readied their troops and facilities: planning; arranging pre-formed Control Centres; readying themselves, and their teams, and their systems for war.

iii. The day was unforgettable - even for me, who at that time was heading an Environmental Agency and only worrying about four of my children who were in high-risk bushfire settings; not like those firefighters who were in control facilities or the field with their families fending for themselves!

People still describe going outside that day as ‘like opening the door on a blast furnace'.

You couldn't not feel the risk; you couldn't not know that fire on this day would be very hard to suppress.

And, CFA and DSE and MFB and so many others were ready for war.

iv. And history records that the battles came, the war erupted and the fight was ferocious. On so many different fronts, over 640 fires that one day alone, and there had developed some fires whose characteristics had not been seen or experienced by almost anyone before. A kind of hell had come to us it seems but the fight went on and on and on.

v. Late in the day the intelligence was informing a new reality - a catastrophe was occurring, had occurred - but the fight went on and on and on - it had to!

vi. After the day people were devastated, shocked, gutted by the impacts on life and property - but they all had to go on - there was so much that had to be done; and there was the strong possibility of other high-risk days ahead.

vii. That very day of catastrophic devastation changed forever CFA as an organisation; even if that was not yet fully apparent to it and to its people.

viii. In setting this scene I want to talk about some of the changes CFA has experienced in the last 18 months.


i. I will talk about the changes that I have seen and what that means; certainly to CFA, but to others as well, I would think.

ii. There are three broad areas or ‘captions' under which I want to explain some things - the first being the phenomenon of moving from:

Highly Trusted to Highly Scrutinised to Back in Town

iii. When you are an extremely well known brand across your State/Territory, and when that brand is built on high performance achievements and a trust or expectation that you are able to keep people safe - it is great!

But then if that pact is felt to be broken (to some extent) the trust that existed can be replaced by demands for scrutiny. This happened to CFA.

iv. Initially, the response was focused on the firefighting hierarchy, with the biggest brand (CFA) attracting most of the attention.

For example, media scrutiny was vigorous and unrelenting at times. It had seen the aftermath and wanted to know why it happened and who was responsible. Most major media outlets had full-time teams on the bushfires for months.

The strength and constancy of the media's work raised doubts in the minds of some in the community - this eroded some of the trust in CFA for a time.

It is equally fair to say that whilst it was largely focused on the top echelons of CFA, it did unfairly affect many of our loyal volunteers and career firefighters by association.

v. Further forms of scrutiny came from some ‘experts' who spoke out with their thoughts from the affected communities; and certainly from a long-running Royal Commission.

vi. Scrutiny is part of life going forward whether by the independent monitoring of the implementation of the Victorian Government's responses to the Royal Commission recommendations; by future Coronial Inquiries; possible civil actions; or the active internal scrutiny by CFA of itself.

vii. This scrutiny has been uncomfortable at times, and even unwelcome in some settings, but none the less it is part of our new regime.

viii. And while for a period of time CFA was seen as ‘treading water' it re-gathered itself and pushed into the 2009/10 fire season proving it was not only ‘back in town' but was better prepared than ever before. Lead by the Chief Officer Russell Rees, and thankful for the partnership of DSE (Ewan Waller), MFB (Tony Murphy) and all the emergency services who made it work so well.

ix. CFA was showing that it had received scrutiny, heard the needs and was aware of the lessons it had learnt; and was changing because of that, and for the better. For example ...

* A newly structured approach to Command and Control;
* A world-first system (OSOM) to take warnings and advice from the field to the community via webs, media outlets, social media, etc, in a quick time;
* Use of pre-formed Incident Management Teams in high functioning Incident Control Centres, maximising local decision making especially on high risk days and when fire activity required;
* A program to align CFA district boundaries to the State's Regional Boundaries, to maximise inter-agency and stakeholder planning and response;
* Delivering a major bushfire preparedness program.

These things and many more showed CFA was on the move. And most pleasingly we saw the community support for CFA, especially at local levels, step up and back our brigades all the way! For this I thank our Regional Managers and the volunteer brigades themselves.

x. We must continue to be open to scrutiny and use it as a proof of our changes and its benefits.


i. The second area of change has been the journey from a self-confident organisation to a RESPONDENT and to a NEW CONFIDENCE AND CAPACITY.

ii. A catastrophic event like ‘Black Saturday' affects so many people in many ways. It can affect people's self-confidence and in turn the organisation's confidence.

iii. I saw many good people working so hard; even though they were very tired and even though they were heavily affected by the events they had endured.

iv. At times there were feelings of anger, vulnerability, even guilt; the Royal Commission process was hard for us and even draining for many - but it had to be - and its outcomes show that a better way can be forged.

v. But we know that we had to create the way forward for CFA and our people. We did not want to keep responding to the agendas that were being played out - we wanted to create the next agenda for CFA.

6. Opportunities came our way and our people wanted to capitalise on them:

* I've mentioned the Command and Control structure that was introduced. It gave an opportunity for CFA and DSE (and others) to implement a better way to operate and to show that we could answer the needs of the community - in other words, that we could LEAD!

* The Bushfire Preparedness Program largely designed by CFA (CS and Lisa) gained Government support and again, in difficult circumstances, we were able to LEAD the program to the community - never do we discount or forget all those agencies that delivered it with us.

vii. I have to say, the Chief Officer, who could have walked away, but would not, lead his team back into what was forecast as being a season even worse than the last; our Community Safety team, lead by Lisa Sturzenegger, lead us to a bigger, better preparedness program with community. And the emergency services fraternity and Government backed us - and that was not easy for them at all times.

viii. We started to grow a new sense of confidence along with new capacities. This will be ongoing in the years to come. We are down the track on new strategy, risk management, organisation reform and many other initiatives.


i. The other aspect of our changing landscape (and the final one I will talk about today) is the experience of transferring from an agency of a government to a partner in Whole of Government outcomes.

Many of you may have preceded us on this journey but for us it has been a new experience, again requiring a lot of energy and a few more skills.

ii. As I understand it, from the early days after ‘Black Saturday' the Secretary of the Department of Justice, Penny Armytage, personally took on the challenge of bringing together the Whole of Government approach to bushfire. And still she sits at the helm, encouraging the best outcomes from all participants.

Nearly every Tuesday morning at 8.00am, and still now, Penny has convened a group of people (often 30 or more) to work through the issues and needs that existed. Often this committee endorsed the materials that Cabinet Committees needed to resolve on, or be aware of.

iii. If we consider bushfire safety policy as an example. This is an area where CFA had the monopoly, almost; now it is lead on a WoG stage, with CFA a strong voice of contribution amongst a great many voices.

iv. Again, there have been times when we have felt threatened by the loss of control, or concerned that expert input may not be as highly valued as we wished. But it has opened up bushfire policy as being critical at the top end of government and delivered by many - not just a few.

v. This has had challenges both inside Victoria and on the national scene. But I would hate to think of where we would be now if not for this WoG approach to bushfire.

vi. In closing, can I say that much of what I have said - many will know - the changes I have spoken of, some will have experienced in their own organisations. But for CFA it has been a hectic and highly active 18 months that you would never ask for again. But now the people of CFA are asking for more change and for us to get on with it - and we will.

Our aims will be:

* To visit change on ourselves rather than receive it from others;
* To participate in changes that are in the best interests of the State - the FSC will be a constant visitor to CFA and vice versa;
* To learn and grow from our experience; and
* To be highly trusted by our communities.

Thank you.


Last Updated: 10 December 2015