Posted at https://www.abc.net.au/landline/firestorm:-shaken-faith-in-fire-management-services/11620450 on Sat 19th Oct 2019.
A Coronial Inquiry into the Sir Ivan fire near Dunedoo is investigating its cause and how it was handled. Faith in the management of fire services has been shaken, and reports suggest volunteer numbers are dropping.
Some of the worst fire conditions in New South Wales were around Dunedoo in 2017. The massive Sir Ivan fire burnt out more than 55,000 hectares. A coronial inquiry is looking not just into the cause and origin of the fire, but how it was handled.
Faith in the management of fire Services has been shaken and as Orange based reporter, Joanna Wooburn discovered the number of volunteer firefighters is dropping.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
This poor bastard was losing everything other than his house and he was literally fighting the fire by himself while we drove five fire trucks straight past his front door.
It was unprecedented in New South Wales.
In February. 2017, New South Wales saw first-hand, the catastrophic conditions that can turn a Bushfire into a raging Inferno.
This fire near Dunedoo in the state’s central west killed thousands of head of livestock and native animals and damaged scores of properties. But it also damaged the trust between farmers and the organisation that’s supposed to protect them, the Rural Fire Service.
It’s been almost three years since the fire tore through here. The scars are still visible.
They obviously got caught here and couldn’t go forward and couldn’t go back.
Ant’ Martin and his son-in-law Damon Soster were among those to lose sheep and almost 3,000 hectares of pasture. 35 kilometres of fencing had to be replaced the costs have added up.
It’s cost us around about 3 million to feed our stock for the last three years and it’s highlighted by the fire.
While water bombing aircraft attacked the fire, Damon Soster says their plea for help from nearby crews went unanswered. We were left on our own. There was plenty of incidents when fires jump containment lines here for us that they weren’t there. I don’t know who was making the decisions and where we stood in all that, we were just fending for ourselves.
The fire subsequently tore through 55 thousand hectares. It’s stretched 60 kilometers the width of the Sydney Basin and even created its own weather storm sending out lightning strikes ahead of the fire front. Whatever stock could be saved were herded to safety.
Damon Soster still has serious concerns about what he perceived to be the lack of help and communication from the RFS three years ago.
Where the Fire started… I know I was in a better position to be on my own with my own equipment getting to the front of it and trying to try to stop it getting any bigger and we achieve that.
Fellow farmer Mitch Lee was one neighbour who answered Damon Soster’s call for help.
It was just was very frustrating for the people that were watching their places burn and seeing all this, millions of dollars of gear just sitting there not I would actually help. While some Crews fought the fire head on, Mitch Lee says other volunteers were ordered not to fight.
We’re constantly running out of water and sort of trying to get filled up, but we thought well if they can’t help us fight it well, maybe they can help fill this up with water so we can keep going but yeah, they said we can’t do that.
The farmers use their own equipment to stop the fire. Joe, this is just a basic firefighting unit that we use that we can pick up with a tractor put on the back of the Ute. If we have a lightning strike or we need to get somewhere pretty quick.
The farmers here don’t blame firefighting volunteers. They know they were just following orders. They’re disappointed with RFS management and they’re not alone. Landline has heard from a number of RFS Personnel who are frustrated and bewildered with how the fire was handled.
At the time of the Bushfire, Mike Gorman was captain of the Kangaroo Valley RFS, he and his team travelled from the south coast to the fire ground but were told not to fight.
So rather than engaging the fire. We parked on the corner of Sir Ivan Doherty Drive where the fire is named after and the Golden Harp Highway and sat there for a period of time.
Tensions escalated as the day wore on.
At this stage a lady came up and banged the side of my truck. I was driving the truck at the time and banged on the driver’s door and wanting to speak to me.
And her question was why aren’t you helping us? Why aren’t you why aren’t you trying to save our properties?
Yeah. I was ashamed to be in the RFS on that Sunday.
We had just driven all day the previous day to get up there for the purposes of helping and now we were being made to just sit and watch properties burn.
Mike Gorman has written to the RFS asking why he and his crew were ordered not to fight. He was told it came from managment, but he doesn’t believe safety was an issue.
If you can’t fight a fire when the wind is actually blowing the flames away from you, there will be never a time that you can fight a fire. So, we were in a safer location as it could possibly be and my other answer to that is that the farmers were fighting the fire all day long.
The RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons declined Landlines request for an interview but had this to say to radio Nationals background briefing. It could be a range of reasons why I crew would be cautioned about getting involved. It could be a safety alert. There could be a concern with a with a significant wind change you’re talking about a very significant rapidly unfolding fire ground. There could be all manner of reasons why a particular team might have been given a specific Direction.
Mike Gorman has his own theory. The hierarchy of the RFS hit the panic button. It was I think the first proper catastrophic day that New South Wales has had and I think they panicked and I think that’s what led to the decision that I was told about that there be no active firefighting because it doesn’t make any sense to make that sort of decision and it certainly doesn’t make any sense that if you make that decision not to tell people.
This apparent rift between farmers and the RFS is one of the reasons crews say they’re losing volunteers.
Our membership went from approximately 90 down to 55. And I know of other brigades that had to do something similar. There’s a big discrepancy between the people that are on the books as numbers and the people who actually have a regular input into their local Bush fire brigade.
Justin Barr is the former group captain at Cumnock in the state’s Central West and has been with the RFS since he was 15. His old Brigade currently has around 60 members but fewer than 20 turn up. He says apathy is a big factor.
There have been instances where we’ve had to go and attend interns with just one in the truck, which is not something you should be doing, but, you know, what are you do you do, your alone in the truck? You can’t you know, there’s a motor vehicle accident. You got to you got to try to attend.
Mitch Lee is ready for the next fire, but he won’t join the RFS.
After that. If there was a fire here or at a friend’s place, the last thing I’d want to do is go into the fire station and be told I can’t do anything.
The Sir Ivan fire at Dunedoo was followed by more ferocious blazers at Tathra on the south coast and the recent fires in Northern New South Wales. The Bushfire season was early this year and there’s an elevated threat of more and bigger fires not just for this season, but beyond.
What we are seeing since the 1970s in Australia is a significant worsening in the bush fire danger conditions were saying 10 to 20% less rain in South Eastern Australia, which is very fire-prone. We’re seeing higher temperatures, we’re seeing stronger winds and the bush fire danger periods are up to three months longer than they used to be in some areas.
Former New South Wales Fire and Rescue commissioner, Greg Mullins says governments need to do more. He says four years ago a request for more water bombing aircraft was made but the federal government still hasn’t committed to the multi-million dollar investment.
Look, it’s pretty sad the Outlook. the climates getting hotter, bushfires are getting worse the federal government’s missing in action, but don’t want to know about this because fundamentally, I don’t think they believe in climate change and they won’t talk. So, it’s up to volunteers on the front line to try and cope.
The Farmers on the Frontline aren’t concerned about big picture policy. They want to see better communication and more action when it’s needed. There needs to be someone making decisions like on the ground who can actually see what’s happening make decisions real time. It’s just impossible to make good decisions from afar.
A coronial inquiry into the Sir Ivan fire at Dunedoo has completed its hearings and is due to deliver its findings in the coming months. Farmers and RFS crews hope it will deliver the answers they’ve been looking for.
If that’s something they have got to learn for the future is in those catastrophic sort of conditions in a fire like that. Someone’s got to make a call.