The members of Andrew Veitch’s rural fire brigade, based at Lake Innes just south of Port Macquarie, have been living on their nerves for months.
A fire took hold in dried-up swamp land near the airport in July and has been burning on and off ever since. “It’s in the peat underneath the surface,” the 53-year-old says. “It keeps popping up again in unburnt country, we don’t know where it’s going to come out – the last four weeks our brigade have been doing duty every single day.”
With the prospect of a horror fire season ahead, his volunteer fire crew have little hope of respite. “We haven’t had summer yet and there is no rain in sight. I can only say it’s going to get worse”.
Veitch considers himself lucky in one respect. The brigade, of which he is deputy captain, has a solid base of 20 members which allows them to split shifts, some able to fight fires during the day while others head out at night when they get home from work.
But in other parts of the state, especially in regions further from major town centres, it’s been a struggle to attract and retain new volunteers. Older brigade members, those with perhaps 40 or 50 years’ of fire-fighting experience, are gradually retiring from frontline roles, and there is no rush of new blood to take their place. Changing methods of land management and agriculture mean fewer workers on farms and in the towns which support rural communities. Then there is the impact of the drought.
“People are moving away,” says Veitch. “Kids on farms are moving away, going to universities or towns or to the mines to get work because the farms have no income on them. Some of the farmer brigades out west are really struggling. I saw a truck out there that would normally carry five, it had two on it … trying to man a truck around the clock.”
As NSW faced catastrophic fire conditions on Tuesday, ahead of searing winds and with more than half its 60 fires burning uncontained, Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a state of emergency and placed the state’s defences in the hands of Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
There was a collective sigh of relief by Wednesday when conditions had eased and the human casualties – though devastating for the victims – had thus far been contained to four dead, 21 injured and cumulative homes lost running towards 350.
But the relief is likely to prove short-lived, with fire again threatening Sydney’s fringe late on Friday. The president of the Volunteer Fire Firefighters Association, Mick Holton, warns “this could be the year when fires will run from the Great Dividing Range to the ocean – this could be the year, and I hope it’s not.”
Senior RFS executives have good reason to be proud of the firefighting effort so far. That the threatened disaster did not eventuate on Tuesday is testament to planning, preparation, messaging, effective marshalling of resources (with numbers bolstered from firefighters from interstate and New Zealand), and the bravery and endurance of firefighters, helped no doubt by a degree of luck.
But that hasn’t stopped rumblings about the service from the VFFA, which Holton insists is the “real voice” of volunteer firefighters in NSW, particularly those in the bush.
Holton, who has previously complained about a “toxic” RFS culture, says many of those volunteers and rural landowners find the service’s management methods heavy-handed and city-centric. “Once we had a time where local brigades controlled their burning in their own patch,” Holton tells the Herald. “There wasn’t Big Brother looking over their shoulder asking them to tick a box, and they got burning done. Now it’s all about the shiny trucks and toys rather than engaging local people to look after their own patch.”
On a visit to the state’s Mid North Coast this week, the Herald came across one case where a crew had been delayed by more than an hour from attending a fire because it didn’t have a volunteer with the right paperwork to drive an RFS truck. The crew member had done all the training but had to contact headquarters to get a form signed off before they could head out.
The price of this kind of “over-bureaucratised” approach, Holton argues, is exacerbation of existing difficulties in recruitment and retention of volunteers.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons sits atop an organisation that has grown far beyond its roots in the original bush fire brigades where there was an ethos of a “handshake across the fence-lines”.
Today, it bills itself as the largest volunteer firefighting service in the world, with a capital budget last year of $66 million (though that reduces to $16 million this financial year) and an operating budget of $524 million, supporting a salaried staff of more than 900.
The real human capital lies in its army of volunteers, which the service’s most recent annual report puts at 72,491. That’s an increase of barely 1000 members on 11 years ago, when the state had 1.2 million fewer residents than it does today.
But the virtual flat-lining of the official figures is not the major concern, according to Holton.
A far greater problem is what he sees as the inflated sense of what those numbers actually represent.
Emergency Services Minister David Elliott told state Parliament on Wednesday that “we have 75,000 volunteer firefighters ready for deployment as we speak”.
But from surveys of brigades the VFFA has undertaken, the association believes the number of able-bodied and committed RFS members who can actually climb on a truck and go and fight fires is closer to 18,500. “If we really had 70,000 we wouldn’t need to import everyone from different states,” Holton argues.
Another experienced brigade leader, who did not wish to be named, thought the number of front- line volunteers might stretch higher than 18,500 but nowhere near the figure entrenched in popular understanding.
“There are 2500 brigades across the state. If you averaged 10 per brigade and some have got a lot less than that, it would give you around 25,000, but no one knows for sure,” the source says. “I think the politicians would be horrified to know what the actual figures were.”
There were instances where people had passed away and were still on the books, he says. Then, “when all the smoke is in the air, you get people knocking on doors wanting to join, and you explain that it takes two to three months to do the training before you get on a truck, and then the fires might have stopped for a few months and you never see [those people] again.”
“Up on the north coast at the moment they will get flooded by volunteers lining up to join … young blokes sign up to impress their girlfriends, they go through basic training, get kitted up with $1000 worth of clothing and boots and after a few months they get bored and lose interest … but they don’t take the time to formally resign, they just stay on the books.”
Ben Shepherd of the RFS provided another number again, saying 46,000 volunteers are “more or less active” with many playing key support roles from drivers, to managing logistics and assisting at air bases.
But Holton, who ran as a candidate for the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party in the last state election, believes the time has come to rethink the way firefighting resources are organised in the state.
He says tensions are still simmering between the RFS and NSW Fire and Rescue (which operates professional firefighting brigades in metropolitan areas) after a clash during fires which ravaged part of Tathra on the NSW far south coast in March last year.
A subsequent inquiry found “palpable animosity” between the state’s two firefighting organisations. Then emergency services minister Troy Grant maintained at the time that the “issues” were confined to middle management and publicly the tensions were hosed down.
But Holton says it’s time to start thinking about a merger of the two organisations, “making sure it’s done in a respectful and proactive way that respects people’s skill sets”.
That’s unlikely to find much traction inside the new RFS headquarters which moved from Lidcombe to Sydney Olympic Park last year at a cost of $21.5 million.
The Herald sought to discuss recruitment and retention issues and VFFA complaints with Fitzsimmons but an RFS spokesman said the commissioner had too much on his plate for an interview. The spokesman provided a brief statement. “We find these issues being raised at this time, when communities are being impacted by fire, insensitive and grubby,” it said. “The VFFA never raises these issues directly with the Rural Fire Service, they only do so through the media. At this point in time, the RFS is focused on the current fires that we have burning across the state, including the 59 fires burning right now, of which 29 are uncontained.”
‘Piles and piles’ of Fire Fuel
On a bushland property on the state’s Mid North Coast, a ring of white plastic chairs and a table have been set up on the brow of a hill with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. This is Snakey Crest where residents of Congarinni South near Macksville, have manned a makeshift “command centre” since last week when the skies turned red and roaring winds drove flames towards them.
“We’re in the best position up here because we can spot fires and helicopters overhead,” says Helen Rushton, who together with husband Owen runs a 60-acre hobby farm, raising some livestock, fruit and vegetables. The couple, in their 50s, have also been monitoring weather maps and radar but have “given up” on the RFS Fires Near Me app.
“You get a warning saying the fire is in your area, but you open the app and you go ‘where the hell is it?’ The Kian Road fire threatened [nine areas] but doesn’t tell you whether its burning down the front, up the back, to the left or right,” Helen says.
She adds they are fearful of what the summer is going to bring. “We just need more information on the ground.”
In this community there is palpable frustration at the “piles and piles” of fire fuel they believe has been allowed to build up in the bush fringes around them, and which has also accumulated on their property and on surrounding farms because of total fire bans through the winter.
The management of fuel reduction is complex, with a number of different agencies – councils, the forestry corporation, National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the fire services among them – deciding on hazard reduction policy through a coordinating committee chaired by the RFS.
A government spokesman said the ability of agencies to reduce fuel loads is “highly dependent on the weather, and the windows of opportunity available are limited.
But to the residents of Congarinni South it just looks like not enough is happening.
“Since they’ve locked the bush up, this is what’s gonna happen. We need to start doing controlled burns again, every winter,” says local Ben Donnelly, who has been bulldozing fire trails into land from Kempsey to Macksville over the past week.
“Every winter we need to light the ridge tops and just let it creep down to the gully, like they used to 15, 20 years ago,” he said, adding that there was not enough credit given to local farmers who had lived on the land for generations, who “know the land”.
It’s a similar line to that pushed by Nationals Leader and Deputy Premier John Barilaro in Parliament on Wednesday, as he lit the fuse on a brawl over staffing levels inside the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Barilaro implied that the NPWS had not done enough to reduce fuel loads in the bush, prompting a counter-attack from the Public Service Association which said the organisation had been gutted of its most experienced fire management personnel in a restructuring ordered by the Coalition government two years ago.
Environment Minister Matt Kean entered the ring too, with a barb seemingly aimed at his cabinet colleague: “I’m not going to have the NPWS being made scapegoats in this bushfire season.”
Senior Liberals were unimpressed at the stoush playing out in the middle of the bushfire crisis, though fingers were mainly pointing at Barilaro for pushing his pet anti-national parks agenda.
But in the fire-threatened northern coastal regions of the state, parliamentary theatrics were the furthest thing from most people’s minds.
This week the Herald spoke with farmers and landowners from Macksville to Kempsey, Combara, Nana Glen and Moparrabah, among them a number of RFS volunteers.
Some agreed that the “guts” had been cut out of the NPWS. “We have got so much national park but how many people have we got that are expected to look after it?” said one.
“We always seem to get forgotten,” says Helen Rushton, “We’re in one of the lowest socioeconomic areas, we don’t have the volunteers, we don’t have the money, we don’t have the funds.”
The son of an old-timer described how his father could go to the fire shed, and a water tank would be sitting ready to go on a trailer that could be operated by anyone. “Now they are on the [RFS] trucks and have to have a certain number of people and they have all got to be qualified.”
All acknowledged that farmers were regularly undertaking “do it yourself” hazard reduction burns on their own properties, some even during total fire bans, in defiance of criminal sanctions.
But in tinder dry conditions with fire already raging unchecked in many areas, those seeking to go it alone in fire management are taking an enormous risk. In one area the Herald visited this week, locals recounted how a neighbour had decided to burn around his house to clear lantana despite the fire bans. The man ended up having to call in the rural fire brigade when the blaze threatened to get away, diverting resources from other fire fronts.
On Thursday, the ABC also reported that efforts to fight a raging fire at Bora Ridge, near Casino, had been compromised by a second blaze lit by a local landowner who had decided to undertake his own backburn.
Some in the bush believe consideration should be given to bringing in the army during periods of overwhelming threat, as happens during floods. They needn’t be at the fire front, but could do food drops, cut trails, and provide back-up logistics and support.
Veitch says it would help if something could be done to ease the financial burden on volunteers, who get no recompense for their efforts, or for employers whose workers take time off to fight fires.
When people are driving 40 kilometres or more into the fire station every day, it “all adds up” he says. “ I’ve had some of my members saying … they can’t afford to put fuel in the car this week so they can’t come to the fire station.”
Holton says some are opposed to the idea of remuneration because it “could break down the ethos of volunteering but I think maybe it’s time to think about how we assist volunteers financially, whether it be a tax break, or free diesel, or monetary payment or something – something to help volunteers balance the books when it comes to giving up their time.”
For now, the state can only remain profoundly grateful for their efforts.