Asked to describe the efforts of the Rural Fire Service during the Black Summer bushfires, many residents in New South Wales would use words like vital, brave and heroic.
- Farmers in isolated areas of the Riverina say the RFS let them down during Black Summer fires
- They say lack of communication between locals on the ground and the RFS headquarters was a major problem
- Locals want the RFS to overhaul its management and policies, especially for regional areas
Not Mick Ryan.
The cattle station manager from Talbingo, at the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, instead says he’s completely lost faith in the organisation.
“The administration of it, I’m talking about, not the local blokes on the ground,” Mr Ryan said.
For more than 20 years, Mr Ryan has managed Boraig Station, an iconic cattle farm with a homestead perched atop one of Talbingo’s pristine hills.
That was before the Dunns Rd bushfire swept through the property in early January, leaving every acre blackened and destroying the homestead, 100 tonnes of hay and machinery.
“And we had to destroy some of our cattle and sell a lot more due to the fact we had no tucker,” he said.
Urgent calls for back-up ignored
By the time the Dunns Rd blaze was officially extinguished in mid-February, it had torn through 330,000 hectares, destroyed more than 180 homes and killed thousands of livestock.
Mr Ryan said that as embers as big as tree trunks flew into his front yard, he felt that he’d been left to fend for himself.
“Our local captain tried to get more help from the control centre in Tumut but it was like, ‘We’re up here, you fend for yourselves’.”
But RFS Inspector Ben Shephard said residents in Talbingo were told their safest course of action was to evacuate because resources would be stretched.
“We were strong in our language telling people not to expect a fire truck, not to expect a plane or a helicopter,” Inspector Shephard said.
“The Dunns Rd fire ended up having 1,000 kilometres of fire perimeter, so I can understand that people may have felt isolated. But between National Parks, Fire and Rescue and the Rural Fire Service, everything was possibly done to try and protect that area of Talbingo.”
Mr Ryan is also very critical of the RFS’s strategy of managing firefighting efforts from an office.
“You need to listen to locals who are looking right at the fire and know the land, know every little back road, not a bloke in an office who’s looking at a map,” he said.
Andrew Scoullar, a senior deputy RFS captain who has lived and farmed in the Lower Bago area all of his life, agrees.
“I tried to tell Tumut on the radio, I said, ‘We need to get tankers back here and there’s no-one back this way’.”
“That was the thing, I don’t think they realised what was happening and just how quickly.
“You can’t run a fire from the office. You need to make decisions on the ground, not in an air-conditioned office.”
Inspector Shepherd conceded communication was a challenge but said that was unavoidable given the size and pace of the Dunns Rd blaze.
He also disputed that locals weren’t listened to.
“We were listening to those local volunteers, we were taking their advice,” he said.
“Local group captains were pivotal in providing information so we could make the best-informed decisions.”
‘Your stock are your livelihood’
Mr Scoullar saved his family home but lost 82 cattle, sheds and an excavator in the fires.
He said the priority given to protecting houses by the RFS should be reconsidered.
“It’s all very well to protect houses, I know that, but somebody’s got to get into the fire and stop it,” he said.
“We had to wait around at houses for other [RFS] trucks to come so we could go and fight the fire — that was time lost that we could have been at the fire.
Inspector Shepherd said that may be a fair comment for individual landholders.
“But it is also hard to judge individuals, what they consider most important to them,” he said.
“The other thing we need to consider is that in many of these areas, assistance came from crews from other areas so their knowledge of that particular community will differ from local volunteers.”
Bruce Jenkins* and his wife, Wendy,* have loved life on their hobby farm on the outskirts of Tumbarumba since they moved to the area 14 years ago.
It broke their hearts that theirs was one of five properties on their street razed by the Dunns Rd bushfire.
“We’d been to the town meetings and were told there was plenty of support about but not a single RFS truck came up our road,” Mr Jenkins said.
“There were two 70-year-old guys trying to save a house and one of their wives went up the road and asked for help from an RFS truck, which was pulled up at the end of the road.
Inspector Shepherd said there was no policy preventing RFS crews from using unsealed roads but that the officer in charge could choose to avoid an area if the risk to safety was too high.
‘We’re on our own’
All three farmers said they didn’t believe the recommendations of the New South Wales Bushfire Inquiry tackled the inadequacies of the RFS and they had little hope the Bushfire Royal Commission’s Final Report would lead to swift enough change.
But Inspector Shephard said the organisation was committed to improving.
“We can and we will but there’s no use in playing the blame game, it won’t get us anywhere,” he said.
With this summer’s bushfire season just around the corner, Ms Jenkins said she’d learned her lesson and now knew that she could not rely on help from the RFS.
Mr Ryan said he’d learned a similar lesson and was investing thousands of dollars in equipment so he could be self-sufficient if disaster were to strike again.
“I’ve spoken to other farmers and they’ve said they’re going to get their own gear and do their own thing,” he said.
“That’s pretty sad when you think about it — when you think that that’s what the Rural Fire Service is there for and people think that little of it.”
*Not their real names