'Failed catastrophically’: Fireys slam RFS bureaucracy


Bush firefighters have told a Royal Commission hazard reduction burns made the Black Summer blazes worse, and "cumbersome" command structures wasted crucial time as firestorms bore down on them.

One Rural Fire Service officer said poor communication with the frontline allowed one fire to break containment before it killed a young firefighter and razed homes.


The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, this week, published more than 1000 submissions authored by members of the public.

Among the countless harrowing tales of survival and heartbreaking recovery were the frustrated voices of the Black Summer's heroes - volunteer firefighters from across the country.

RFS Snowy River brigade Captains David Fletcher and Simon King, in a joint statement, said a lack of hazard reduction created high fuel loads and more intense fires.

"A lack of hazard reduction burning across all land tenures resulted in high fuel loads, increasing fire intensity and making firefighting efforts more difficult," they said.

It was exacerbated by a lack of well-kept fire trails and delays caused by "problems with permission to work in National Park land", they said.

NSW National Parks and Wildlife, however, consistently say they are increasing the amount of hazard reduction. In five years they conducted 1000 burns across 635,000 hectares of bushland, according to their website.

One RFS member said communications failed catastrophically in the Mid North Coast. Picture: Sam Mooy/Getty Images
One RFS member said communications failed catastrophically in the Mid North Coast. Picture: Sam Mooy/Getty Images

Private firefighting company Fire Support NSW's Timothy Wainwright said both NSW RFS and Fire and Rescue NSW were too restrictive in how they issued permits for fires and hazard reduction burns.

"Fire permits are very difficult to obtain and are usually highly restricted and restrictive," he said.

"We are forced to provide 20 page Prescribed Burning Plans for each simple burn."

He called the systems of both agencies "unfair and unworkable".

The commission's own research paper, that summarises studies of pre-emotive burns, grazing and vegetation clearing, found experts agree fuel reduction reduces fire intensity, spread as well as impacts on homes and the natural environment.

"A large body of evidence suggests that altering and reducing the fuel load through prescribed burning can reduce fire intensity," the paper says.

Experts are divided, however, on whether the fuel load or the weather determine the behaviour or more extreme fires.

RFS captains Fletcher and King put the Black Summer's intensity down to other factors as well - such as a hotter and drier climate. But they also pointed the finger at their own organisation.

The RFS Incident Management Team, that took over the fight in their area, "overwhelmed" critical local knowledge and created "slow, frustrating and cumbersome" experiences, they said.

Other brigades made similar criticisms.

Bulga Plateau RFS' Michael Roze said "communications failed catastrophically" when those sort of fires hit the Mid-North Coast in November.

That meant accurate communications from the RFS' regional incident controller were "patchy" and "informed decisions could not be made".

"The brigade was sent on goose chases when there were more immediate needs," he said.

The Royal Commission has heard from climate experts, firefighters and seen thousands of submissions. Picture: AAP Image/Dean Lewins
The Royal Commission has heard from climate experts, firefighters and seen thousands of submissions. Picture: AAP Image/Dean Lewins

The volunteer firefighter pointed to a long-smouldering fire in the hills above Bobin, on the NSW mid-north coast, that grew into an inferno and destroyed the town as one example of a missed opportunity.

"It had not been given a state priority and had not been adequately dealt with," he said.

RFS Group Officer John Hawkins, who had a commanding role at the NSW-Victoria border, told the commission the control centre overseeing the Green Valley fire had "no urgency to get resources, equipment and air support" on the flames.

"(The centre) continually told us air support was coming and it didn't, then told us there wasn't any air support and there was at Wagga and Tumut airports," he said, adding group officers had to organise heavy equipment from the firefront.

"(The centre was) making decisions, pulling out resources and crew, without consultation with ground crews which led to (the) fire escaping containment lines, which led to a death of a firefighter, loss of property and houses."

Mr Hawkins was referring to RFS volunteer Samuel McPaul, who was killed when a fire tornado flipped an eight-tonne tanker onto his crew at the end of December.


Originally published as 'Failed catastrophically': Fireys slam RFS bureaucracy

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