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Feature photo from the VFFA Magazine (courtesy of Fairfax Media)

The Upper House committee examining the causes and management of the Wambelong bushfire that started in the Warrumbungle National Park near Coonabarabran released its report today.

The Chair of the General Purpose Standing Committee No. 5, the Hon Robert Brown MLC stated, ‘The Wambelong fire of January 2013 burned out Warrumbungle National Park, destroyed scores of surrounding properties and shattered the lives of many people in the Coonabarabran community.

The committee has made 29 recommendations focused on improving legislation, policy and fire operations, in order to ensure better prevention of bushfires, and better responses to them.’

‘Our most important recommendation is the NSW Government urgently affirm the authority of the NSW Rural Fire Service to fight bushfires by enshrining in the NSW Rural Fires Act 1997 the ‘interim arrangements’ put in place after this fire that clarify who has ultimate control of the initial response when a bushfire breaks out. This control sits squarely on the shoulders of the NSW Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue NSW, which must act to fulfil the responsibilities vested in them,” Mr Brown stated.

The committee also made a number of recommendations to help prevent bushfires by systematically reducing fuel loads of dry wood and vegetative litter on public and private land across the state. Mr Brown said, ‘We recommend that the government commit to and fund a long term program of prescribed burning based on the recommendation of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission for an annual rolling target of a minimum of five per cent of public land. It must also commit to extending the funding for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife five year hazard reduction program past 2016.’

‘This inquiry also highlighted to the committee the distress that people affected by a bushfire experience, even long after the fire. We recommend that the government ensure that in future bushfire emergencies, sufficient support services including those for mental health, are provided for an adequate length of time.’

The Wambelong fire

The Wambelong fire broke out in the Warrumbungle National Park near Coonabarabran on 12 January 2013 and burned out of control from around 1.00 pm the following day. Referred to by many as a ‘wildfire’ or ‘megafire’, it burned for 41 days across national park land, private property and other Crown land. While no lives were lost, over 56,000 hectares were scorched; over 95 per cent of the national park was burned; 56 homes were lost; and there were 28 injuries to fire fighters. This inquiry commenced in response to concerns among numerous members of the Coonabarabran and surrounding community that the fire could have been prevented, and that a more effective early response would have contained it and mitigated the desolation that followed.

The report stated

It is self evident that it is so much better to put a fire out early or to contain it, than for it to turn into a fire storm. Enabling substantial fire fighting resources to be released early (prior to a section 44 declaration) will save a great deal of resources and potential damage. Recommendation 15 is that the NSW Government consider enabling the default position during catastrophic and extreme fire danger periods to be the same as for section 44 fires, so that fire control centres have the same resources and systems ready to deploy should a fire break out. This will ensure more timely and effective responses to bush fire outbreaks.

Local knowledge and the Volunteers

The committee was very concerned by allegations from numerous volunteer fire fighters that they were not afforded sufficient respect and autonomy during the Wambelong fire, and that this reflects a broader trend also apparent in other areas of the state. That this issue was also raised by people in leadership roles in the Coonabarabran community suggested that it is a cause for real concern. It was clear that at times this lack of respect undermined the effectiveness of the Wambelong fire response.

Thus in recommendation 17 the committee has set out a number of strategies to build greater respect for volunteers into the practices, procedures and culture of the RFS. These include that the RFS: examine its operational plans to provide for use of local fire fighting volunteers’ knowledge at every level of the chain of command; require a local fire fighter to be stationed in every command vehicle where possible; ensure that every out of area crew includes at least one local fire fighter; and require officers to engage more effectively and regularly with volunteers during the periods between fires.

Pastoral assets

The committee is sympathetic to the view of many participants that protecting land owners’ homesteads seems to have overshadowed protecting other assets, and indeed the desire of land owners to instruct crews on what assets they would prefer to see protected. Hence the committee has recommended that the RFS reassess the protection of pastoral assets during bush fires to ensure that priority is not simply afforded to the homestead, and that land owners are, within reason, able to request which of their own assets are to be protected.

After the fire

In respect of recovery after the fire, the committee noted the massive financial and emotional impact that the Wambelong fire had on the many individuals whose properties were burned. We appreciate that the government’s public liability scheme arrangements require that the government’s legal liability for the losses incurred be established, and we accept that this will occur via a legal process. However, we underscore the immense strain that the length of the process and its adversarial nature are placing on those who intend to make a claim. It is already two years since the fire and people are still faced with the uncertainty of whether they will be duly compensated for their losses. They continue to suffer emotionally, financially, and in their community relationships. Hence the committee has recommended that the government take all reasonable steps to expedite the process of establishing any legal liability for losses incurred by property owners as a result of the fire, and in the event that it is found liable, to expedite the process of paying compensation claims.

The wellbeing of those affected by the Wambelong fire is of critical importance to the committee. When we visited Coonabarabran we witnessed for ourselves the profound and continuing vulnerability of many individuals and families, and their ongoing need for mental health and other support. Recommendation 26 reflects our conviction that the Ministry for Police and Emergency Services must ensure that adequate funding and services, especially recovery centres and mental health services, are provided for an adequate length of time following bush fire emergencies.

Volunteer representation

The committee supports the view that volunteers do not have adequate representation in government decision making about bush fire prevention and management. While the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association has some recognition as a body representing volunteer fire fighters, as yet its representatives apparently have not been afforded due opportunity to contribute to decision-making on policy and operational matters. The committee considers that the Association should, as a legitimate advocacy organisation for Rural Fire Service volunteers, be treated by the RFS as an integral participant in policy and operational decisionmaking.

Recommendation 19 states that the NSW Rural Fire Service formally recognise the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association as a legitimate advocacy organisation representing volunteer bush fire fighters, and duly consult with it on policy and operational matters.

Downloads

1. The General Purpose Standing Committee No5 Wambelong fire – Exec Summary and Recommendations

pdf

2. The General Purpose Standing Committee No5 Wambelong fire – Full Report

Warning: Large File (Approx. 9MB)

pdf

Want more information

For further information please contact the Committee Chair, the Hon Robert Brown MLC, on (02) 9230 3059

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