Bushfire inquiry comes to Tenterfield

Grievances about fire permits, communication difficulties, personal insurance and fuel build-up on public lands all got an airing when the NSW Bushfire Inquiry came to Tenterfield. Around 80 people gathered in Tenterfield Memorial Hall on Sunday afternoon to speak with Professor Mary O'Kane and Dave Owens, appointed by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to lead the inquiry.

Prof. O'Kane is Independent Planning Commission Chair and a former NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer. Mr Owens is a former Deputy Commissioner of NSW Police.

Prof. O'Kane made it clear at the start of proceedings that the inquiry is looking at the immediate response by the community and authorities to the bushfire threats, not recovery efforts.

"We're looking at what worked and what didn't," she said. "We're not chasing individuals."

Mr Owens is also a former State Emergency Operations Controller, putting him in a good position to assess the response to the disasters. He said his own house burned to the ground in a past episode, leaving him angry for three or four years and looking for someone to blame. Then his holiday house at the south coast wasn't lost in the latest bushfires when many in the district were, making him a 'guilty survivor'.

No recognition of February fire victims

Mayor Peter Petty opened proceedings, saying those who suffered damage in the February 2019 fires preceding the August 10 cut-off date of the Section 44 state of emergency declaration had their access to recovery funding restricted.

Jane I'Ons concurred, saying it's as though the February fires never happened. MP Janelle Saffin said there are people still living in containers and broken-down caravans in Tabulam. She said cross-border issues extend to local government borders, with reports of Kyogle RFS crews bring held up at the Tabulam Bridge as they awaited the go-ahead from their new command.

Ms Saffin urged a review of what she termed 'the machinery of government' and its Standard Operating Procedures for responding to disasters, which often doesn't fit the need.

Communication

Several speakers expressed the need for GPS tracking of firefighting assets so that they can be deployed efficiently. Apparently this is already happening with the new radio systems, but the roll out will take another 1-2 years.

It was noted that RFS communication had improved markedly between the February fires and later incidents. There were exceptions, though, with Bronwyn Petrie reporting that the RFS was dropping incendiaries onto private property five weeks ago without notice, putting people and livestock at risk.

She said there was also an incidence of RFS iPods being locked and inaccessible for four days, because someone had changed the password.

The Fires Near Me app was applauded, but needs to be updated more quickly.

There were problems with the wrong people getting mobile phone alerts of impending fires, and those in Torrington were lucky to receive any communication at all. The local RFS shed doesn't have a landline and mobile phone reception is scant. Pegs making the location of a new phone tower behind the RFS shed remain unactioned, and Cr Petty said he would chase this with MP Barnaby Joyce.

Hazard reduction

Restrictions on fire hazard reduction were cited as a major issue. Gary Verri said his mum was always burning off, to the extent that she was buried with a box of matches.

"She never lost a fire," he said, "and you could go anywhere on the property and pick a bunch of wildflowers. Now in Bald Rock you'd only be picking up charcoal."

He said while hazard reduction is essential, no-one burns in the permit season and few in the off-season due to the bureaucratic red tape involved.

Some attendees confessed they continue to burn off unhampered by the red tape, as the windows of opportunity to do so are narrow and the requirements under the RFS Fire Act of 1997 are onerous.

Grant Johnston said the requirement to stay with the fire until it's extinguished might be alright for burning off a paddock of wheat stubble in 20 minutes at Moree with a beer in hand but impractical for fires in rough terrain that could smoulder for days, yet landholders risk a $1500 fine.

Another requirement to give 24 hours notice of a burn-off to a 1800 number is also unworkable, he said, especially as that notification isn't passed on to the relevant fire captains. Having a metres-wide fire break before lighting up is also unrealistic in mountainous country.

National Park and Wildlife Service (NPWS) was portrayed as poor neighbours. Mr Johnston said he had a great working relationship with the service in the control of weeds and feral animals, but when it comes to fires it's like 'secret squirrel business'.

"We should be able to work with the NPWS on hazard reduction," Mr Johnston said.

"You won't find a quota, because it would be embarrassing. The poor buggers on the ground know it, but can't do anything due to the pointy-heads in the city."

If NPWS is burning an average 1.9 per cent of its land each year, Ms Petrie said, it will need 50 years to get over it all.

She said it takes two years of planning to get a burn approved, and then if there's no window of opportunity to carry it out, the burn has to wait another year. There are some sites, like Basket Swamp, tagged never to be burned.

Resources

Speakers felt that both the NPWS and Forestry Corp are under-resourced.

There were calls for the entities to maintain fire breaks and trails, perform hazard reduction burns more often and to develop their own water resources, instead of depending on their neighbours' private dams.

"It's the private landholder's responsibility to keep livestock off their land, but they don't mind the 3-400 kangaroos coming out of the park looking for water," one said.

"The National Park department needs to be re-evaluated by the appropriate people, to produce a plan of management that works. As it is now, items of high priority have had nothing done."

Lynton Rhodes urged RFS, Forestry Corp and NPWS management to get input from local landholders. He said forests and national parks should have boundary roads and a network of internal roads, strategically-placed water supplies and be burned off every 4-5 years.

He suggested in inaccessible country that helicopters be used to light up ridge lines to allow softer fires to work their way downhill.

"Regular cool burns allow the bush to regenerate," he said.

There was a lot of support for the local fire control centre to be reopened, and ideally having both Tenterfield and Stanthorpe controllers in the same room to coordinate cross-border operations.

"We have a big, volatile fire ground around here that can't be managed from Glen Innes," Mr Johnson said.

He said during the February fires last year, there was no fire retardant for the Jenniings fires but it was "dropping like lollies' in Wallangarra.

A lot of money has been invested in a new Glen Innes RFS headquarters but when multiple fires are active the single radio channel can choke communications and permission to act, Ms Petrie said.

It was also raised that NPWS and Forestry Corp tend to doing their hazard reduction during work hours, relying on RFS volunteers to monitor burns overnight.

A Torrington resident noted that water bombers there didn't take to the air until mid-morning each day, following briefings, responding too late to the ongoing threat. She would also like to see a greater emphasis on educating residents not to leave combustible 'junk' like old cars around their homes.

Priorities

Ms Petrie said the prioritisation of protecting buildings as assets doesn't recognise the value of livestock, fences and pasture to landholders. Moreover backburning in the right place with local knowledge can help to prevent fires spreading to threaten assets of any nature.

"We were told that they don't want to introduce more fire to the landscape," Ms Petrie said. "Well, bugger me."

On a positive note she said the aerial support was great, saving a lot of homes.

The rapid removal of water from a dam, however, left the banks muddy and cattle bogged themselves, requiring 20 to be put down. There was also reports of private stores of water taken for firefighting not being replenished, as promised.

There was also a scenario where a fire on the Queensland side near Woodenbong was considered low priority as it didn't threaten assets on that side of the border, whereas prompt action would have prevented the fire crossing the border and threatening homes in NSW. Ms Petrie suggested that NSW crews could have been deputised to address the Queensland fire in a more timely manner, to avoid later complications.

Deliberately-lit fires

Cullendore's Stuart Bell spoke of 32 arson attacks in his area over the past six years. Victim statements have been given, RFS specialists investigated and police detectives attended, but no follow-through and no-one formally interviewed.

"That person is still out there felling empowered," Mr Bell said.

He fears the coming fire season.

"There's no livestock, the grass is high. After the first frost someone throws a match and we're gone."

Thanks to the volunteers

While there was criticism of Rural Fire Service management, there was also high praise for its volunteer firefighters, and calls for them to be compensated for their service.

Their welfare is important but their deployment during the day is at odds with the best way to manage bushfires, several speakers said. Preparation should be done by day and backburning and containment lines done at night in safer conditions.

"It was the illegal actions of a couple of blokes with experience, working through the night, that saved the village of Drake," one said.

Mr Bell raised the issue of insurance coverage for non-RFS members involved in firefighting. Coverage only kicks in when working under the direction of an RFS controller, but the inquiry panel will query this.

More to come

Martin I'Ons noted that carbon dioxide (CO2) is, in effect, a fertiliser and the CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased 50 per cent since the 1950s, encouraging plants like Love Grass to grow more vigorously.

"More fuel means more severe fires," he said.

"We need more hazard reduction burns."

Alex Rubin suggested that as new properties are constructed, they be required to be built with sufficient clearance around them to lessen the threat of bushfire loss.

He would like to see an expansion of the RFS AIDER service that assists infirm, disabled and elderly residents with their bushfire preparedness.

Prof. O'Kane wrapped up saying it had been a very useful meeting, before the inquiry moved on to its next stop at Glen Innes.

The deadline for submissions is March 27, but this can be extended for those directly affected by the fires.

This story Bushfire inquiry comes to Tenterfield first appeared on Tenterfield Star.