• Tony Bosworth

“We don’t want anything fancy” – grant to upgrade Heights Bowlo stuck in government limbo

Kurrajong Heights Bowling Club - affectionately known as The Bowlo - was at the heart of firefighting efforts during the bushfire emergency of 2019-20 and yet despite 30-pages filled out, 45 volunteers working on it, and 60 attachments later, their bid for grant funding to upgrade facilities has fallen on deaf ears, thanks to a bureaucratic snafu.

Club members, many of whom lost homes and businesses and are still deeply traumatised by the fires that swept through, spent weeks getting information together for a grant to upgrade the water pumping and storage facilities and improve the kitchen and toilets and put on a veranda to give more cover to firefighting crews doing continuous shifts.

In the bushfire emergency this time round - and seven years ago when the State Mine fire crept ever closer – the Bowlo was the final staging area for fire crews before they would have to pull back and go into urban firefighting in the Sydney basin.

The Bowlo was literally the last stand.

Bilpin district residents have made a video to ask PM Scott Morrison for his help in getting the grant through

“We provide a place to park fire trucks, amenities for firefighters and a place for all emergency services to come together and plan how to bring the fire under control,” said Greg Dulson, 2019’s President and a current director of the Club.

“The Club staging area is used in all bushfires that threaten Western Sydney,” Mr Dulson pointed out.

The Kurrajong Heights Bowling Club was set-up by residents in 1965 and the building and amenities have been in continuous use since then and have not been upgraded or renovated during the past 50-plus years.

The day after the 2019-20 fire swept through

The Club sits on five acres and has a permanent creek on the land, but in the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires they didn’t have enough water to supply fire trucks because the Club doesn’t have sufficient water storage tanks in the car park.

NSW Fire and Rescue need tar-sealed road access to water to refill their fire truck tanks, they can’t go through the paddock to a dam like the RFS trucks can.

“This meant these trucks couldn't spray houses with water when the fire attacked,” Mr Dulson said.

“All they could do was help people leave their burning houses.

Elvis the water crane in action at Bilpin district during the bushfire emergency

“So our priority is to upgrade our water pumping and storage facilities and improve our kitchen and toilets and put on a veranda to give more cover to firefighting crews doing continuous shifts. We don't want anything fancy - just the basics.”

The Club not surprisingly felt they were in with a good chance of getting some funding with plenty of grant money available through the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund.

But there was a catch right from the start – the resources needed to complete the forms.

“The application form was 30 pages and it took 45 volunteers to complete, with 60 different attachments,” said Bilpin resident Helen Foulis who lost her home in the last bushfire emergency.

“We were so happy when we sent our application off into cyberland minutes before it was due,” Ms Foulis told the Post.

“It was raining, we thought we had done a good job completing the application form, and we thought we had put together a good case for an immediate improvement to bushfire fighting in our area.”

“But our hope was short lived,” said Lichell Maris, a Bilpin businesswoman and board member of the Club.

“Bilpin District is a renowned telecoms blackspot area so our internet is intermittent. So when we upload documents it can be a time consuming and painful process. And we realised we had uploaded a wrong document to a section of the funding application.

Not a time many residents will easily forget

“So we rang the Department of Regional NSW four times before someone got back to us. We explained we had put the wrong document in the wrong place.

“The Department responded saying it would be unfair of them to allow us to change our application after it had been lodged. So our application is currently missing an essential document.”

As the application sits in bureaucratic limbo after a simple error, and apparently no room for flexibility from the bureaucrats, local anger is simmering.

“Then we found out about pork barrelling,” said Ms Maris.

“Pork barrelling is where a political party in power gets to decide who gets the grant money. Unfortunately for Bilpin, the political party in charge of handing out the grant money are the National party.

“Bilpin has MPs from the Liberal [Hawkesbury MP Robyn Preston] and Labor party [Macquarie MP Susan Templeman] but not the National Party. This party doesn't stand a candidate in an election here, so the district doesn't even have a chance of ever being represented by them!” said Ms Maris.

A sky many of us were familiar with for weeks

“It's ridiculous and terrible that we will have to wait until either the NSW Liberal Party or the Labor Party have power over allocating the grant money before we will have a chance at getting the Club staging area upgraded,” Ms Maris added.

Kooryn Sheaves, another Bilpin resident whose property was also burnt out by the recent bushfires, is another of the locals who spent weeks helping write the grant application.

“Given pork barrelling appears legal, wouldn't it be fair to tell people about it in the Program Guidelines?” asked Ms Sheaves.

“Then you can find out if you are in a National Party seat, and if they aren't, decide if it is worth applying for the grant.

Bilpin burning...

“In the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund Program Guidelines, Deputy Premier John Barilaro [State Nationals’ leader] says, ‘people living in regional NSW have been doing it tough ......I understand many people...are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork they have to complete'...”

“Given his acknowledgement of the tough times and burdensome paperwork, shouldn't the Deputy Premier tell people in the regions who don't live in National Party seats that they will be considered second to applicants who do?” asks Ms Sheaves.

“That way people can decide for themselves if it's worth adding to their already very heavy workload? They might decide it is more productive to put their energy into other ways of raising funds to build public infrastructure in their communities.”

Dr Billy Gruner, the 2020 Club President and resident of Bilpin District Mt Tomah Skyline Drive, whose property was also burnt out by the bushfire said the Club had twice been used as a staging area in the last seven years.

“We submitted a wrong document in the wrong place which means the application won't pass the initial diligence check - is all the paperwork present? Yes. But it is a competitive tendering arrangement and you can only vary your application if extraordinary circumstances apply.”

The scale of the fires was beyond compare

The two fires which pushed through the region in the last seven years – the 2013 State Mine Fire and 2019 RFS out of control Mt Wilson backburn – were both started by government entities - the State Mine Fire accidentally at a Defence base, and Mt Wilson through a backburn.

“Doesn't being burnt out twice in seven years by bushfires started by Government bodies count as extraordinary circumstances?” asks Dr Gruner.

“Doesn't having to organise 45 volunteers to sacrifice their Christmas Summer holidays break to help write the funding application with intermittent internet count as extraordinary circumstances?

“Aren't applicants being judged on the enduring benefit their program will bring to the community rather than their administrative skills?

“And is it fair to hold the administrative skills of volunteer community groups to the same standard as those of paid professionals in business and government who have also made grant applications?

“Doesn't this stance by the Department act to benefit professional organisations and discriminate against community groups?”

Kurrajong Heights Bowling Club members and Bilpin district residents do have each other, and that camaraderie has seen them through these tough times, but in the back of everyone's minds is the question - what do we do when this happens again?

Getting the grant they have worked so hard for, to make upgrades that could save lives, is all they're asking for - and it could make all the difference.

All pictures taken by Jochen Spencer during the 2019-20 bushfire period and used here with his permission

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