• Tony Bosworth

“Every fire starts off small” - year after bushfire emergency, residents still upset and angry

The Senate Inquiry into lessons learned from the 2019-20 bushfire emergency rolled into North Richmond this week to hear from Hawkesbury residents, local groups and the council about the devastating fire season and what needed to change.

Long-time Bilpin resident Bill Shields is a member of the Independent Bushfire Group, an organisation with over 470 years of fire-fighting experience behind its members, and he told the Inquiry there needed to be a rethink about how fires were fought.

Mr Shields was an RFS captain for 30 years and a Group Officer within the local organisation. He knows Bilpin and the way fire acts inside out. The fire veteran has lived in Bilpin since he was six.

He told the inquiry, the Green Wattle Creek blaze which burnt through more than 270,000 hectares could have been put out simply and early.

“Six or eight people winched in on the ground would have had that fire out, and returned for dinner,” Mr Shields told the Inquiry.

“You need a couple of helicopters to get a team in and a light aircraft to drop some water and it [Green Wattle Creek] would have been out that day.

Picture courtesy of Jochen Spencer

“Every fire starts off small,” Mr Shields said. “Early response is the best way to tackle the majority of fires."

He told the Post there needed to be a rethink about the way fires were handled and gave the example of Western Australia where light aircraft are in the air during that State’s fire season spotting fires.

“What we need to do is gear up to deal with this sort of approach. We need early detection, satellites, planes,” Mr Shields says.

He points out WA has 10 American Champion light planes, with three to four of them in the air flying around during fire season spotting fires.

“There’s nothing better than experienced eyes and when they spot a small fire they will call in the light water bombers."

He says this contrasts with NSW where there “has been a dependence on large aircraft”.

Mr Shields says during the bushfire emergency the big water bombers dropped 24 million litres of retardant at around $15 to $20 a litre ($480m – nearly half a billion dollars) “and it was reasonably ineffective”.

“The answer is rapid response and having the resources to do it.”

Also covered at the Inquiry was the ongoing issue surrounding failing communications, with the spotlight on Bilpin and Macdonald Valley.

“People are not going to be feeling safe if they know the next time there is a fire we can’t even get telecommunications,” Bilpin Region Advancement Group’s (BRAG) Graziella Obeid told the Inquiry.

Power went out early in Bilpin during the disaster which meant the Telstra-owned communications tower at Bilpin failed, leading to the complete shutdown of all local communications.

Bilpin comms tower failed because of power cuts - no comms for 14 days during the bushfire emergency

Bilpin also lacks a local safe place residents can head to in an emergency situation, and there were calls too for better coordination between the Bilpin community, Hawkesbury Council, Transport for NSW and National Parks.

“We are a frustrated, traumatised community without any of the real help or support we desperately need,” Ms Obeid says.

“As is always the case, communities know and understand what they need. When these requests fall on deaf ears we are only assured that future disasters will wreak the same havoc and impacts as past ones.

“Most people now shrug their shoulders and say ‘what a surprise, nothing will change, this is exactly what happened last time’.”

The BRAG submission to the Inquiry made the point that funding after the emergency had been mostly funnelled into mental health programs that they felt did nothing to reduce the stress and fear of knowing that:

• Telecommunications are likely to fail with in the next fire or disaster event • Roads and fire trails are likely to fail to provide the access the RFS requires to fight future fires effectively. • There is nowhere for residents to go that is local and safe in the event of an evacuation if our main road is fire impacted, which is highly likely.

Ms Graziella also made the point bushfire recovery grants were extremely difficult to apply for, so much so Bilpin community had missed out.

“The grants, needed to improve community facilities so that the community can get back into a life that includes connection and joy and not just survival and resilience, were so onerous to apply for that our exhausted community made an administrative error and failed to get any grants,” she said.

Stephen Brown, a past President of the Macdonald Valley Association (MVA) put in a personal submission to the Inquiry with numerous points but one that continues to stand out are the poor communications systems in the Macdonald Valley.

During the recent flood emergency the Valley was effectively cut off by flooded roads and failed mobile and landline communications.

Mr Brown said there needed to be action on a range of issues – some the responsibility of communications companies Telstra and Optus - but others by Hawkesbury Council, including an overall emergency plan, safer places identified, a proper response and recovery plan, and action.

“Ongoing landline phone failures through floods, fires and day-to-day and lack of mobile phone coverage were a point of feedback in the Macdonald Valley Association Wellbeing Survey 2020, highlighting impacts on wellbeing,” Mr Brown said.

He also took aim at Optus who he said had failed to deliver on the Round 2 Optus funded project announced in 2017, which meant “that for multiple fire seasons and flood events the community’s isolation has continued, contrary to the Minister’s and program's promises”.

Bilpin resident Penny McKinlay who is BRAG President but who spoke at the Inquiry as an individual, gave her overview and said at the start, “apologies in advance if I get a little emotional”.

Ms McKinlay said, “there are birds and mammals making an appearance and there is green growth but the dynamics have changed. The diversity we had, the ratios of species is out of whack and the actual landscape is scarred.

“It makes we weep to think of what we put our beautiful shale cap forests through the summer before last."

“A severe storm in September exposed the failings in our ageing tower and telephone exchange. Power was out over a large area due to many trees down.

“Our brigade was asked to assist via RFS pagers and due to the lack of power, we couldn’t respond as we use our private mobiles to arrange a crew to attend.

“Inadequate battery back-up storage capacity has been an issue for over 15 years.

“Fast forward to October, November and December and our brigade was now on high alert. Our dozer lines went in yet again – a 24 hours a day, seven days a week, tortuous, dusty and stressful program to get a line around the rear of properties that back into Wollemi and Blue Mountains National Parks.

“Despite over 10 years of continuous work by volunteers to have these trails remain open and be maintained, the funding is never there.

“Ninety per cent of our RFS brigade are self employed so most are already losing income and the fire isn’t even here yet.

Picture courtesy of Jochen Spencer

“The fire impacted Bilpin on three separate occasions over 10 days, crossing and closing the Bells Line of Rd constantly.

“Our community lost power five times over the summer. When the outage lasts longer than a few hours we progressively lose landline, mobiles and internet.

“Power was lost to the Mountain Lagoon community for extended periods resulting in no communications for 14 days, that brigade having to respond to fire by physically driving to homes and bashing on doors to get a crew together. 14 days…. In the middle of the largest fire ever recorded from a single ignition point.”

“And when the next fire event rolls around in five to seven years – as it will – we could take a punt on what takes us out first – bushfires that roar out of an unmanaged national park (again) or a complete failing of an outdated communications system.

“All this only 1 hour 20 minutes from Australia’s biggest city.

“The physical and mental toll was huge. A fractured brigade, friendships broken, families and relationships stretched to crazy lengths and a bureaucracy that just doesn’t seem to care enough to work with the volunteers to fix it. All this is a recipe for disaster in a few summers’ time.

“No more reports, commissions, talk fests, meetings, thank you morning teas, parades or face to faces…. you have all the facts and technology that you need to crack on and resolve all these issues. As was said during these fires - “our volunteers just love what they do’…. I am not so sure the volunteers do any more.”

The Senate Inquiry continues and Macquarie MP Susan Templeman, who was at the session said she believed it was the very first time a Senate hearing had been held in the Hawkesbury.

"I am very pleased that some of the key issues facing bushfire affected residents and businesses were able to be aired in the hearing," Ms Templeman said.

"It is the first time in my memory that a Senate hearing has been held in the Hawkesbury, and it shows that Parliament has heard from me that the recovery is still underway and some essential issues remain unresolved.

"I want to thank Senators Tim Ayers and Claire Chandler for spending the day in Macquarie, including doing a site visit to Bilpin. If they had taken evidence from all the organisations and people I suggested they would have been here for several days, but it did shine a light on past and present recovery and resilience issues."

Main picture courtesy of Jochen Spencer

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