Are bushfire responses hindered by bureaucracy?

RFS captains say added bureaucracy could lead to missed opportunities

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RFS captains argue decision-making on the ground is crucial.

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Bombay RFS captain, Garry Grant, Bombay RFS deputy captain Mick McGrath and Mongarlowe RFS captain Paul Bott. They argue more value should be put on local-knowledge when fighting fires.

Bombay RFS captain, Garry Grant, Bombay RFS deputy captain Mick McGrath and Mongarlowe RFS captain Paul Bott. They argue more value should be put on local-knowledge when fighting fires.

One of the key recommendations made in the NSW Bushfire inquiry, was that fire agencies make a priority of suppressing new fire ignitions as fast as possible.

This was welcomed by local Rural Fire Service crews on the ground, but there was concern that this aspiration would be hindered by the amount of bureaucratic structures being put in place following the inquiry.

Captain of the Bombay RFS, near Braidwood and NSW Farmers Rural Affairs Committee chairman, Garry Grant said many volunteer firefighters and landholders wanted to see more decision-making on the ground with local knowledge.

"The local knowledge was acknowledged in the inquiry, but the recommendations seem to be more about centralising decision making and therefore removing it another step from what's going on," he said.

Mr Grant said the North Black Range fire, which burnt to the west of Braidwood last summer, may be the subject of a coronial investigation, which would consider whether there was a missed opportunity to get on top of the fire early.

"They've gathered evidence from those volunteers who were there on the first day of the fire, because there is the view that more could have been done then when the fire was small," Mr Grant said.

"Certainly there were a lot of RFS capacity there that wasn't utilised."

Local knowledge should be used when back burning

Bombay RFS deputy captain, Mick McGrath agreed saying some of the recommendations were the antithesis of local engagement.

"One of the recommendations that sticks out is that for back burning for conditions classified above 'high', there would need to be an independent review completed in Sydney," Mr McGrath said.

"I understand there were scenarios during the bushfire season where back burning went wrong, but the problem we face is we have bureaucrats making the decisions and if we slow the process down you will miss the opportunity."

"Conditions including wind speeds and direction on the fire ground locally can be vastly different to those forecast generally.

"Successful back burning outcomes are more likely to be achieved where local knowledge from both senior volunteers and other experienced locals is taken into account and this should be mandatory. "

He also argued that local fire fighting knowledge would be lost if more control was taken away from local captains.

"You can't have people swanning in and saying 'we're here to fix this problem for you, without knowing what the problem is," Mr McGrath said.

Section 44 conundrum 

Mr McGrath also raised the conundrum of Section 44 (when the RFS Commissioner declares a localised State of Emergency).

Explaining that while an early attack was absolutely essential, resources to fight the fire come out of the local area's budget until a Section 44 is called.

"So you're in this catch 22, where the fire is let go until it becomes a Section 44," Mr McGrath said.

"The reality is if you're really trying to protect the community, you would have all your resources to put on the fire from the outset."

Mongarlowe RFS captain Paul Bott addressing a community meeting at the Mongarlowe fire shed on December 4. Photo: Supplied.

Mongarlowe RFS captain Paul Bott addressing a community meeting at the Mongarlowe fire shed on December 4. Photo: Supplied.

Mongarlowe 'mozzies' critical 

The NSW Bushfire Inquiry found farmers and landholders provided "invaluable" assistance to the Rural Fire Service during the bushfire crisis.

The inquiry stated farmers, often referred to as 'mozzies' for their ability to swarm neighbours' properties and assist, were "a critical part of the fire fighting effort, and an important partner in managing and responding to the threat of fire".

The small town of Mongarlowe, to the east of Braidwood, was referenced as an example.

Mongarlowe was threatened by the Currowan fire in late 2019 and early 2020.

At the time, most resources were focused on fighting the fire's eastern flank, which was threatening populated towns on the coast, and the Mongarlowe RFS was left with only two fire trucks to defend its town.

Mongarlowe RFS captain Paul Bott said another complication was that during the Currowan fire threat they were working under the Shoalhaven Fire Control located on the coast, instead of the closer Lake George Fire Control.

"We were even more remote to Shoalhaven and initially when the fire first came over the range, we felt very much left to our own resources," Mr Bott said.

"National Parks were providing four to five Landcruiser units, but that was it, and it was a very long fire front."

The Currowan fire burnt over the Budawang range, threatening Mongarlowe. Photo: Supplied

The Currowan fire burnt over the Budawang range, threatening Mongarlowe. Photo: Supplied

There were also the communication blackspots to contend with.

"Both telecommunications and radio communications should seriously be looked at," Mr Bott said.

"We're only 100km from the national capital and more than half of the Mongarlowe area is in blackspot."

Mr Bott said they simply couldn't have done it without the mozzies.

"They were exceptional, they were there to help and they had a great attitude so it was very welcomed," he said.

However, the inquiry cautioned that community members must have comprehensive knowledge of fire behaviour in these circumstances, so they present as a help, not a hindrance, to fire authorities.

They also recommended that NSW RFS emphasises the importance of local landholders using protective clothing while fire fighting.

Mr Bott said he thought increasing knowledge was always beneficial and noted that several of the Mongarlowe mozzies had actually signed up to the brigade since the fires.

Night shift emphasis to avoid missed opportunities 

Mr Bott said if they had to face a fire season like that again he would like to see an improvement in equipment for quick response units and more emphasis put on night shifts.

"In the scheme of things it was bigger than anyone imagined, but one thing that came out of the inquiry which was good to see was the night crews," Mr Bott said.

"We were well short on night crews, that was a reflection on resources of course, but I think we have to put greater emphasis on the night crews as being equally important as the day crews, because there were a couple of missed opportunities."

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