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Locals Claim Fire Inquiry Misses Chance to Prevent Another Tragedy

Mar 28, 2024

The final Report into the Black Summer Bushfires by the State Coroner has been met with disappointment by local residents who claim it is a missed opportunity and won’t help prevent a repeat of the terrifying days when firefighters lost control of the devastating Gospers Mountain Fire almost five years ago.

The state coroner, Teresa O’Sullivan, presented her findings after over two years of hearings, examining 25 deaths and 46 fires across NSW during the 2019-20 bushfire season. She issued 28 recommendations primarily directed at the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and police, but also emphasising the need for adaptation to the climate crisis.

Before she handed down her 734-page report in the coroner’s court in Lidcombe, O’Sullivan read out the names of the people who had died and acknowledged the “patience and strength” of those who loved them.

She said there were 11,774 fire incidents and 240 consecutive days of burning during the 2019-20 fire season which burnt 5.5m hectares in NSW alone. The largest fire in NSW history, was the Gospers Mountain fire in the Blue Mountains which broke containment lines in December 2019 during an out-of-control backburn ultimately scorching an estimated 63,700 hectares in the Grose Valley.

Many locals expressed dissatisfaction with the Coroner’s recommendations and reiterated calls for a government-backed compensation scheme and for the Rural Fire Service (RFS) to heed local expertise.

“Most of us here are members of the RFS. We need decisions to be made on the fire ground where we are,” stated Bilpin resident Kooryn Sheaves outside the coroner’s court. Critically, Sheaves noted that neither the RFS incident controller nor the state operations controller, who approved the backburn, were called to testify. “We’re hoping to take our unheard evidence to a parliamentary inquiry,” Sheaves added.

Local resident Lionel Buckett from Berambing lamented the fire’s toll, stating it “wiped out 200 houses and structures, burned down a lot of my neighbours’ houses, nearly killed quite a few of us.” He expressed disappointment with the inquiry’s outcomes, describing it as “28 pages that aren’t really affecting us in our situation.”

Sheaves recalled the harrowing experience of receiving a call from neighbours on December 15, alerting them to an imminent threat of being overrun by fire. “Our community was terrorized for 10 days,” she said. “It is devastating to see that these recommendations don’t address the needs of communities to better prepare for our changing climate.”

Following the release of the recommendations, RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers acknowledged the scope for improved communication within the agency and assured that firefighting decisions were made locally. He noted advancements in firefighting equipment since the 2019-2020 fire season and pledged careful consideration of the coroner’s recommendations.

However those comments drew the ire of locals who said while strategic backburns were a local plan, the Commissioner is responsible for reviewing and approving those plans.

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