Committee recommends the establishment of a Rural Fire Service Volunteers Benevolent Fund, administered cooperatively by the NSW Rural Fire Service, the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association and the Rural Fire Service Association.

Mirage News reported that the parliamentary committee examining the allocation of the $51 million that was donated to the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Fund by the charitable fundraising appeal established by Ms Celeste Barber tabled its report on Friday, making three recommendations.

Chair of the committee, the Hon Robert Borsak MLC, said: ‘Millions of people from around the world generously donated to Ms Barber’s fund to help those individuals and communities in need. However, the limitations of the Fund and a Supreme Court decision has meant the money could not be allocated as some would have intended. The committee heard that the Trustees do in fact have the ability to set up or contribute to a fund to support rural firefighters injured while firefighting or the families of rural firefighters killed while firefighting. However, it seems funds have not yet been allocated to this cause.’

The committee therefore recommended the establishment of a Rural Fire Service Volunteers Benevolent Fund, administered cooperatively by the NSW Rural Fire Service, the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association and the Rural Fire Service Association.

Mr Borsak said: ‘Our hope is that this will provide immediate support to volunteer firefighters who have been injured and/or who have lost their homes to fires during the course of their volunteer duties, and to the families of firefighters who have lost their lives’.

The committee also recommended that the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Trust allocate an initial start-up budget for said Benevolent Fund from any unallocated donated monies originating from the Ms Barber fund in the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Fund as at 31 July 2020.

Finally, the committee recommended that the Legislative Council proceed to debate the Rural Fires Amendment (NSW RFS and Brigades Donations Fund) Bill 2020, which aims to ensure that the $51 million raised by Ms Barber can be directed to the individuals, communities and injured wildlife affected by the bush fires.

Mr Borsak concluded: ‘We want to see the majority of the money allocated to what Ms Barber and her supporters intended. It is crucial that this occurs, especially when many people impacted by the bushfires are still living in tents in the middle of winter, with no support’.

Read the original VFFA Media Release on this subject;

Shire’s new bushfire recovery support service

Narooma News reported that the Eurobodalla Shire Council’s new case management service offering support to those significantly impacted by the bushfires opened on Monday, August 3.

The Eurobodalla Bushfire Recovery Support Service will assign bushfire-affected residents a single case manager, who can cut through the information overload and find the right assistance throughout recovery.

Callers to the council’s bushfire recovery helpdesk have indicated that while there is a lot of help available, it is often a complicated and frustrating process – tackling many issues while trying to cope emotionally.

Recovery service coordinator Jane Moxon said the new service would help residents find and access the right support.

“We’re really providing a one-stop shop for people for whatever they need in their recovery,” she said.

“Instead of each household trying to work out what help is out there through charities, government agencies and other organisations, a case manager will be able to sit with them, work through it all and provide ongoing support for as long they need.

“It might be as simple as needing help with filling out forms, to working with council on the rebuilding process, finding appropriate housing, approaching other agencies for help, or perhaps referral to expert mental health and counselling services.”

Seven months on from the fires, Ms Moxon said many people were feeling exhausted and emotionally drained – a situation made worse with COVID thrown into the mix.

“Some people are frustrated that perhaps their situation hasn’t changed as they had expected it to, or they’ve come across barriers to moving on,” she said.

Assessing the state of species in bushfire-affected areas

Monash University reported that during the summer, bushfires rained hell on the forest streams of southeastern Australia that the iconic platypus calls home.

Before the fires, the shy monotreme was listed as “Near Threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. In 2016, the IUCN estimated their population was between 30,000 and 300,000. The number is vague because, historically, the number of platypus living in the wild has been difficult to determine.

The most reliable way of counting platypuses has traditionally been through live trapping studies, in which platypuses are trapped and released. It’s labour-intensive but was, until recently, the only way to monitor platypus numbers.

In 2018-19, a new method – environmental DNA, or “eDNA” sampling – was used to discover where, in southeastern Australia, the platypus was hiding out. “All you have to do is arrive at a site and take some water samples, regardless of time of day,” ecologist Reid Tingley says. “It’s quite sensitive, and it seems to be applicable to any aquatic animal that you can design a primer for.”

The method will now be used to check the status of a range of animals in bushfire-affected areas. A Sydney University researcher has estimated that one billion animals were lost during the fire season.

The eDNA samples taken before the fires provide researchers with a precious research opportunity. They’ll be compared with post-fire samples to gauge which species of fish, frog, mammal, and crustacean survived the catastrophe.

Dr Tingley, an ecologist from the Monash School of Biological Sciences, has received a $255,000 grant from the Australian Government’s Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Recovery Program to use the method to assess biodiversity in bushfire-affected areas.

“Essentially, you take a water sample, you filter that water sample with a very fine filter, and the DNA gets trapped on that filter,” Dr Tingley explains. “So that could be a hair cell, a skin cell, any source of DNA that is floating around in the water.”

Read more here.

Long-awaited Tathra and district bushfire coronial inquiry begins

The long-awaited state inquiry into the Reedy Swamp-Tarraganda Bega/Tathra bushfire gets underway on Monday, two years after it destroyed almost 70 homes.

Deputy State Coroner Elaine Truscott will oversee the inquiry, which is being held at the at the NSW State Coroners Court and Forensic Medicine Facility in Sydney, and live streamed online.

The fire burned through more than 1000 hectares, causing $63.5 million worth of damage.

In 2018, a preliminary report by NSW Rural Fire Service fire investigators found “electrical infrastructure on Reedy Swamp Road as the likely cause” of the bushfire.

In the days after the fire, state-owned power company Essential Energy denied poor maintenance of its equipment contributed to the bushfire, blaming trees that fell onto its powerlines during the extreme weather conditions as the origin of the fire.

Essential Energy chief executive John Cleland said at the time an initial review showed inspections and maintenance of the area around Reedy Swamp Road were “up to date and in accordance with prescribed standards”.

“Preliminary internal enquiries indicate network protection equipment activated as it is designed,” he said in a statement.

The inquiry will run until August 21.

Bushfire-affected businesses in Glen Innes can access new government service

The Glen Innes Examiner reported that a team of experienced facilitators are now in fire-affected regions including Glen Innes to roll out a Strengthening Business initiative.

The program includes a $10,000 grant for eligible businesses, distributed through state government business services and 20-odd National Bushfire Recovery Agency officers who help locals navigate support on the ground.

Fire-affected businesses can apply for Strengthening Business services at business.gov.au/EP or through their local bushfire recovery coordinators

“These facilitators have proven skills and experience in helping small-to-medium businesses develop strategies to rebuild and grow, pivot, diversify, or perhaps even use their existing skills and knowledge to start something entirely new,” a spokesperson said.

“This is a free service that will complement the existing recovery effort. Businesses can apply to work with our experts to determine the best way to get their systems, staff, operations and finances back on track.”

Facilitators will work with businesses on longer-term strategies to make sure that whatever is put in place now, strengthens their business to be more resilient tomorrow.

“Small businesses are the backbone of regional economies. It is vital their recovery is led locally, to encourage economic growth, ensure ongoing job creation, and future sustainability within the communities,” the spokesperson said.

“Of course, these businesses continue to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of the hardships cause by the bushfires.”

“Using the Entrepreneurs’ Programme’s extensive network across Australia has allowed us to quickly stand up this initiative and draw on the wealth of business expertise that we have at our fingertips to support our bushfire recovery efforts.”

Documentary on Conjola bushfire disaster

The Standard reported that

Anthony ‘Ash’ Brennan has never had to film something so close, personal and emotionally raw.

He, like many others, lost a property when the Currowan bushfire exploded into the Lake Conjola area on NSW’s South Coast on New Year’s Eve.

Now the filmmaker has the tough but important task of documenting what happened on that terrible day.

He works in the sports broadcast area but is an experienced short film and documentary maker.

His documentary “We are Conjola – Our Fire Our Story” is still a work in progress and because Anthony knows what many of the people are still feeling, it’s sure to be something special.

Anthony’s own story could easily be part of the documentary.

The house he lost had been in the family for 35 years and he was planning on moving into it permanently.

Anthony then watched when what was left of his property was cleared away as part of the clean-up operation.

“When it was swept away, I experienced lots of thoughts and emotions,” he said.

His brother Scott and his wife Kris also live in Conjola but their home still stands.

“When they [Scott and Kris] left their home, they thought it was gone,” Anthony said.

Scott and Kris’ home then became a place of “solace” where people gathered for a chat and a beer.

It was during one of these community support gatherings when Anthony had a lightbulb moment.

“I spoke to a local artist and he said to me ‘I want to start creating again so I can heal’,” Anthony said.

“It was a lightbulb moment.”

He heard how other artists and writers were back creating wonderful pieces of art and decided the process needed to be documented.

“Originally the documentary was going on how important artists are to a community,” he said.

Peter Dunn, from the Conjola Recovery group, then suggested the documentary should include stories of people who were on the ground when the fire exploded into their lives and homes.

Because of his connection to the community, many people came forward wanting to tell their stories.

He has heard many harrowing accounts of that brutal day.

“There have been tears in front and behind the camera,” he said.

A grant of Convoy of Hope is helping him fund the documentary.

He needs help to make the documentary and hopes to hire a local crew to help.

People can go here to make a donation and contributions are fully tax-deductible via the Documentary Australia Foundation.

There is a suggestion the documentary will premiere on New Year’s Eve.

“I have to be careful how it’s done,” he said.

His biggest fear is triggering off people’s emotions because he knows the feelings are still raw for many locals.

“We do need a historic record of what happened,” he said.

Anthony was not in Conjola when the disaster struck.

He had just finished working on the Boxing Day cricket Test and was due to head over to Perth to cover the tennis.

“On New Year Eve, I got a message from Fire Near Me saying it was too late to leave,” he said even though he was not in the area at the time.

He then rang his brother.

“The last I heard from Scott was houses on Entrance Road were exploding all around him,” Anthony said.

“It was like a war zone and I remember telling my boss from Tennis Australia I thought I had just lost my brother.

“We [Conjola] became famous for all the wrong reasons.”

Scott and Kris thankfully were okay and then helped direct others to safety.

“Scott saved many lives that day,” Anthony said.

As we head back behind the camera, Anthony admits parts of the journey have been hard.

Once, after two days straight listening and documenting harrowing stories, he needed to take some time out to look after himself.

We look forward to seeing what will be a powerful work.

How the ABC located the tree which started the Gospers Mountain bushfire and the Sydney ‘mega-blaze’

The ABC reported that after the publication of our visual investigation on Sydney’s “mega-blaze”, readers asked how we found the tree which started the Gospers Mountain bushfire.

Satellite and photography analysis can be a component of my role as an ABC digital producer and determining when and where the first spark was is less complicated than you might expect.

When I was asked to investigate the origins of the Gospers Mountain fire, it turned out I already started the story six months earlier.

When we debunked claims that a majority of Australia’s bushfires were caused by arson, NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) confirmed with me at the time that smoke was spotted on October 26, 2019.

Loading up German-based weather service Blitzortung, I isolated an electrical storm that brewed near the Victorian border the previous night and moved through central NSW.

At the fading edge of this 24-hour storm, a pair of cloud-to-ground strikes were registered near the decommissioned Gospers airstrip, deep in the cragged gullies of Wollemi National Park.

However, location data for lightning has an error rate of up to 1.5 kilometres and there were a lot of trees.

I cross-referenced the metadata of the Blitzortung strikes against a spreadsheet provided to us by MetraWeather which showed one of those bolts — strike number 19,068 — occurred 32 seconds past 10:55am.

Pulling up images taken on October 27 captured by the Sentinel-2 satellite over those coordinates, we found the first columns of smoke from the ignition site.

a composite image of satellite images with one showing smoke
Lightning strike positions, with a 1.5km margin of error, matched against satellite images in late October.(Supplied: Blitzorgung, Sentinel Hub Playground)

The entire process took 25 minutes, but what we had found was only the first few seconds of a fire lasting 79 days — finding a burning tree from space turned out to be the easiest part of the story.

Intense bushfire smoke, which smothered the Harbour City over the summer, made tracking the flames from the sky impossible on some days.

Even firefighters had immense difficulty mapping the inferno, their computers on some days being unable to correctly render the enormous blaze.

Taking advantage of NASA’s thermal spotting and adjusting non-optical and infrared displays on the Sentinel and Landsat satellites helped us cut through the smog.

a smoky and cloudy map with red spots
Thermal detectors helped us cut through the bushfire smoke when five bushfires joined on December 6.(Supplied: NASA Worldview)

But we needed to find the tree and we were warned by National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS), firefighters and police that being winched in by helicopter was the only viable way to access the site.

Our bushfire recovery reporter, Philippa McDonald, was still regularly returning to fire-affected communities and worked closely with the RFS to fact-check our findings.

I gave her, our cameraman Billy Cooper and our photographer Mridula Amin the latitude and longitude and asked them to find the stringybark that sparked the season’s largest blaze.

“Just look for a charred trunk that looks like it’s been split in half, it’ll be easy,” I said before adding, “… hopefully”.

three people in a helicopter seat
(L-R) Mridula Amin, Philippa McDonald and Billy Cooper onboard a helicopter into Wollemi National Park.(ABC News: Mridula Amin)

The three of them loaded up a 4WD and travelled, in freezing temperatures, treacherous trails in dense bushland — never entirely certain of the exact spot where they needed to be.

“Hours later on that rocky ridge, where you’d think there would be no reception, the call came from National Parks telling us to ‘get out now, it’s dangerous’,” Philippa said.

“I don’t think they wanted a search and rescue on their hands and a couple of hours later, when we were back in reception, we got through to the Director of the Greater Blue Mountains National Park, who checked we were OK.

“He said, ‘I might be able to get you in’ and offered to helicopter us in.”

Philippa smiled. “Those words were music to my ears,” she said.

Six northern NSW areas begin fire danger period

The Echo Net Daily reported that after last year’s devastating and tragic fire season, the NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) are doing their best to prevent the same thing happening again in 2020/2021.

The RFS has announced that six Local Government Areas (LGAs) will commence the Bush Fire Danger Period (BFDP) from August 1, due to prevailing local conditions.

NSW RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers said the six LGAs that will enter the BFDP from 1 August 2020 are Armidale Regional, Walcha, Uralla, Glen Innes Severn, Inverell and Tenterfield.

‘While an early fire season is not unusual in these areas, increased grass growth due to recent rain could prove problematic over coming weeks and months,’ said Commissioner Rogers.

Laing O’Rourke wraps up bushfire clean-up

About Regional repoted that bushfire recovery contractor Laing O’Rourke says it’s transitioning the bushfire clean-up back to the NSW Government after clearing more than 3200 affected properties.

The company was engaged by the NSW Government to accelerate the clean-up of 2800 fire-damaged properties across the state. After clearing those properties by the 30 June deadline, the contractor was asked to stay on to clear additional properties that had registered for the program.

“From day one, this project has called on us to apply an extra special level of dedication, effort and care to help thousands of families across the state to take the first step towards rebuilding,” said a Laing O’Rourke spokesperson.

“We set ourselves the challenge to think differently and to remain focused on getting the job done as quickly and safely as possible while being sensitive to communities impacted by the bushfires. We are proud of the way the team has pulled together to deliver for bushfire-impacted communities around NSW and provided an opportunity to begin to reimagine a new life after such tragedy.

“However, we couldn’t have done this without the support of local communities, businesses and our supply chain partners across the state. Thank you for your trust and support during the past five months.

“While our role on the bushfire clean-up program is coming to an end, the NSW Government and Laing O’Rourke remain acutely aware that there are still eligible properties registered to be cleared.

“We still have more than 120 clean-up crews working across the state to complete these remaining properties as quickly and safely as possible. They will continue clearing these properties until the job is done.”

All eligible properties that have been inspected will be cleared by Laing O’Rourke. Future registrations from the end of July will be managed by the NSW Government’s Public Works Advisory.

The Laing O’Rourke spokesperson said the company is continuing to work with local Service NSW outlets and councils to proactively contact anyone identified as having experienced bushfire damage to ensure they are aware of the free clean-up service and to encourage them to register.

NSW firefighter blasts bushfire authorities over ‘terrible’ leadership, communication

The ABC reported that a NSW firefighter has slammed fire authorities after he was sent out on one of Australia’s worst bushfires days but due to poor communication and leadership did not battle a single blaze.

n his submission to the New South Wales Independent Bushfire Inquiry, James Diamond described his shift on New Year’s Eve, 2019 as the “most frustrating and mortifying day” of his 11-year career.

Dozens of homes were lost that day on the NSW South Coast, including 89 in Conjola Park alone.

Mr Diamond said his crew from Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) was deployed to South Nowra for several hours but were not given the chance to save a single property.

“What a way to bring in the new year, by achieving absolutely nothing that day. Didn’t get the hose off the truck once while people were losing everything, literally,” his submission said.

“I can hands down say that that was the most frustrating and mortifying day I have had in the 11 years I’ve been a firefighter.”

The senior firefighter was critical of communication between agencies, leadership and decisions made around deployment.

He said his crew had “wasted” several hours on standby in Katoomba and in Orchard Hills, in Sydney’s west.

Rather than head straight to the fireground, Mr Diamond said his crew were told to grab a meal at the local McDonald’s where some locals asked why they “weren’t doing anything”.

“The sky was black with smoke and there we are, 17 firefighters sitting down eating Macca’s — extremely embarrassing,” his submission said.

Mr Diamond said they were sent to put out spot fires near the HMAS Albatross Military Base but when they arrived “the fire had long been through”.

Eventually, they returned to Sydney. On the way, he discovered via social media and phone calls that friends who owned a dairy farm were fighting the fire without any assistance.

“If I can find out about people who are in desperate need of assistance by looking at Facebook and making a few phone calls, surely the RFS and FRNSW should have more of an idea of what’s going on than me and my mobile phone,” he wrote in his submission.

“The lack of leadership, communication and tasking was absolutely terrible.”

Mr Diamond said it was “disgraceful and made me furious” to hear of the number of homes lost in the region while his team did not get near a fire.

Fire and Rescue NSW did not provide a response to Mr Diamond’s specific allegations but a spokesperson said it would work closely with the NSW Government to implement any recommendations once they were handed down.

The NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) has been contacted for comment.

Mr Diamond’s submission is one of 2,000 made to the inquiry by individuals and organisations, 900 of which were made public on Friday.

Some common themes to emerge from many of those submissions are volunteer firefighters saying they had to provide their own masks and at times helmets.

Inexperienced firefighters revealed how they were left with little supervision and had to work for 16 hours straight.

Many of the submissions also expressed serious concerns at the Fires Near Me app not updating quickly enough.

One South Coast family said they evacuated three times and were inadequately prepared to take shelter on a beach with their toddler.

The submissions include harrowing accounts of the summer disaster, calls for better coordination between agencies and a need to implement new strategies to reduce fuel loads in National Parks.

One resident recalled bursting into tears while trying to defend his parents house from a blazing inferno at Conjola Park, while dozens of others told the inquiry their frantic calls to triple zero were left unanswered at the height of the emergency.

In his submission, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro called for the reintroduction of grazing in national parks to minimise fuel loads and help reduce the risk of bushfires.

The inquiry’s report was delivered to the Government on Friday.

A spokesperson for the NSW Government said it was considering the recommendations and would release the report and its response shortly.

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