• Tony Bosworth

Bilpin region residents are furious report blocked into RFS backburn that tore through area

The NSW government has refused to release its report into the Mount Wilson backburn which destroyed thousands of hectares and leapt into the Grose Valley in 2019, laying waste to areas of Bilpin, Berambing and Mt Tomah.

It is unlikely the report will be released until at least 2022.

The backburn - which locals including seasoned RFS volunteers loudly cautioned RFS HQ against at the time of the 2019-20 bushfires – ultimately went ahead during the worst fire season many of us have experienced, quickly got out of control and grew into a massive blaze destroying property in its path and threatening life.

News of the refusal of the NSW government to release the report has opened barely healed wounds among locals as anger simmers.

Bilpin resident Marg Millar was finishing off a bacon and egg snack on December 15, 2019 when the bush telegraph reached her at Millar’s Orchard in Bilpin.

“I left a trail of potatoes through my kitchen as I emptied the sack they were in and threw it in a tub of water ready for beating out the flames before running out and putting on the irrigation,” she says.

“I was the only one at home and it was bloody scary. I was ringing up everyone trying to get help, but the police had put a roadblock up, and no one could get through.

“In the end Kathy Wilson, Secretary of Bilpin Fire Brigade, got through in the Bilpin Fire Truck and picked me up. Everything around us was on fire. She did not stop, it was too dangerous, I had to jump in while the truck was still moving.

“Now the NSW Government does not want to release a report telling us who, what, why and how they are going to make sure it doesn’t happen again!

“Well how about I stop paying the $50,000 NSW government bushfire loan I had to get to fix everything they burnt? Is that a fair swap?

“What a great government. They burn us out, then make us borrow money to clean up the mess they made and do nothing to make sure they do not make the same mistakes again. It is just wrong,” said Ms Millar.

Berambing resident Kooryn Sheaves also tells a chilling story of the day the fire arrived.

And it didn’t help that the region’s infamously poor mobile communications were barely working.

“There was no RFS warning, only the bush telegraph,” she says.

“I drove to the neighbours and told them the news from Mt Wilson and to start their pumps and get water onto their buildings.

“I found a New Zealand RFS volunteer leafleting Berambing Crescent telling residents there was a fire in the area. I showed him where he could shelter while the fire passed over. It was terrifying but at least I could do something – I could point a water hose at the flames.

“I feel completely powerless when the government who started this fire, and then has an inquiry into what went wrong, refuses to tell us what needs to happen to make things better in the future.

“The politicians don’t care any more about what they do to our families and communities,” said Ms Sheaves.

Lionel Buckett also well remembers the day he got a phone call from a mate up at Mount Wilson.

“I was in my office at Berambing at about 3pm on December 15, 2019 when I got a call to say the RFS backburn was out of control and would hit Bilpin in 20 minutes. It took less time than that for my office to catch on fire and we spent the next 48 hours fighting to save our lives and livelihoods.”

Mr Buckett says the report – officially called Factual Investigation: Gospers Mountain Fire - Impact on Mt Wilson and Bilpin 14 December 2019 – should be released immediately.

“It is outrageous to hold it back. We need to see the findings of this inquiry so we can make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he says.

The NSW government’s Department of Premier and Cabinet have denied access to the report, and will not release it, because the Premier’s department says it will be part of the brief of evidence considered by the State Coroner, who is not likely to start coronial proceedings until late this year, with focus on the Gospers Mountain Fire and the backburn that went wrong not likely until 2022.

Coronial inquests of this scale often take years to publish findings.

Meanwhile we head ever closer to another potential fire season.

“It is another kick in the guts for us” says Dr Billy Gruner at Mt Tomah.

“There were no warnings on the day and my partner and I had to make a run for it in the car as the fire ripped through the back of Mt Tomah and through our property,” he says.

“The government needs to come clean and tell the community what happened on that fateful day where we were all nearly burnt to death by an RFS backburn that got out of control.”

Greg Gascoigne who lost his house as the fire swept through Berambing is also scathing about the report being held back.

“They burnt my house down and now they do not want to explain why they did it or how they are going to try not to do it again – you have to be bloody joking!

“They are a bunch of real bastards. They need to say sorry and then we can sit around the table and have a good talk about how to stop it happening again,” he says.

“I’ve heard the RFS modelling said expect 20 to 40 deaths in Bilpin and we got away with only burning down half a dozen of our homes,” says Mt Tomah’s Karen Buckett, “but we might not be so lucky next time.

“We need to see the inquiry findings and recommendations, so they don’t kill us next time. The RFS just needs to say sorry to us and for the animals that died - we got it wrong. If they don’t, how can we trust them in the future?”

And Bilpin Fruit Bowl owner Margaret Tadrosse whose business was hard hit when fire destroyed part of it says the report must be made public straightaway.

“The report needs to be made public, the victims have a right to know why the Mt Wilson backburn was lit in such diabolic weather conditions.

“If we let this go it will only happen again and next time the RFS predictions of 20 to 40 deaths may happen. Then the government won’t be able to hide this report.”

Pictures of the 2019-20 bushfire as it swept through Bilpin region - courtesy of Jochen Spencer

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