The difficulties of cross border firefighting and communications are well illustrated by the story of the Templeton’s and other residents of Bunbalong. Its just off the Monaro Highway and is in NSW, but the ACT border runs parallel to the highway and just to the West. The ACT RFS generally have a good working relationship with NSW RFS but things didn’t work out too well on 1st February when they were impacted by the Clear Range Fire. It doesn’t help that the fire was called the Orroral Valley Fire in NSW.
Helen Templeton gave a full account of what happenned in her submission. Its really worth reading the full submission to understand the detail of all the issues they faced including fire prediction maps that stopped at the border.
The ability to properly deploy air resources is discussed with priority being given to Bredbo which was not under threat whereas retardant lones laid along the NSW/ACT border to the west of Bundalong could have potentially saved six properties.
You can read the submission in full here:
On 31st October the ABC took up the story:
Commissioner Georgeina Whelan defends decision to hold onto ACT firies, as those over the border say it cost them dearly
The ACT’s Emergency Services Commissioner says she never gave firefighters to NSW to help battle blazes that broke out inside Territory borders because they were never asked for.
- Residents of rural Bumbalong on the ACT-NSW border say failures during the summer bushfires resulted in lost homes
- The residents say if recommendations of the bushfire Royal Commission were in place, they could have been spared
- The ACT’s emergency services commissioner says agency relationships were not to blame for lost homes
In the wake of the summer bushfires, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements found the country needed a national approach, and better communication over state borders.
It recommended national emergency warning systems and laws that would allow the Commonwealth to take action, even if states don’t request help.
It also highlighted the frequent frustrations firefighters experienced being unable to communicate with teams just over the border.
Just across the ACT border, residents who lost their homes to the fires say better communications between agencies could have helped save their properties.
Commissioner Georgeina Whelan said the recommendations to improve cross-border communications were “strong”, but defended her decision not to lend firies to NSW.
“We had been regularly working with each other throughout the season and requesting support as required,” Ms Whelan said.
“NSW did not request additional support from the ACT, because they were able to relocate other resources from the state.”
Bumbalong residents say ‘illogical’ border relations cost them dearly
In Bumbalong, a rural area just over the border at the ACT’s southern point, farmer Kim Templeton said residents were still asking what went wrong in the summer bushfires.
At the beginning of February, The Orroral Valley fire that had begun in Namadgi National Park spread into NSW, ultimately destroying six homes and several more properties around Bumbalong.
A deputy captain for the local rural fire service branch, Mr Templeton said communication issues began before the Orroral Valley fire had even crossed the border into NSW.
“When they put out their prediction map for that fire, the first prediction map stopped at the border,” Mr Templeton said.
“We’re on the other side of the border and we’re thinking, ‘Oh magic, the border stops the fire.'”
He said when it did cross over, naming conventions that gave the NSW end of the fire a new tag led to further confusion.
“The Orroral fire no longer appeared to be the problem … even when we were talking on the radio, people were talking about the Orroral fire, and others were talking about the Clear Range fire.”
But Mr Templeton’s greatest concern is that because the agencies were operating separately, the ACT did not fully consider the consequences of letting the fire burn south.
“I think because the fire was heading south and east towards us and not towards Canberra, the ACT ignored it,” Mr Templeton said.
“If a fire breaks out on my property, I’m obliged to do everything I can to deny the fire crossing into my neighbour’s place.”
Ms Whelan said communication issues were not to blame for the destruction the blaze caused.
“It is tragic as to what occurred. That fire ran across our border and then ran 90 kilometres and then destroyed those homes — it was not for the efforts of both ACT and NSW that occurred.”
However, Ms Whelan acknowledged there were border issues that caused confusion.
“Clearly there is a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of taking a national approach to both mapping systems and communication systems,” she said.
“[But] from an ACT-NSW perspective, the off-season has been a very busy one.”
People in Bumbalong are still waiting to move on from summer’s fires.
Mr Templeton said one couple were only put into a new home last month.
Another couple are still living in a caravan.
And he said the small community has lost others who are selling, or have said they will never return.
“Almost everyone is suffering some form of trauma, either psychological, physical or financial,” he said.
“There’s a fair bit of turmoil going on.”
The reality is the ACT is an average sized rural fire district trying to be a complete agency. While the ACT’s urban fire service separating from the NSW made sense, the same cannot be said for the RFS. The ACT RFS should be fully integrated into the NSW RFS for operational matters.