Bushfire evacuations risky in ‘one road in, one road out’ coastal towns, inquiry told

18 August 2020

Published by https://www.newcastleherald.com.au

AUSTRALIA – Fire was already impacting on the outskirts of Tathra before a “shelter now” warning was released to the public, a NSW bushfire inquiry was told today.

On day 11 of the Tathra bushfire coronial inquiry, NSW Rural Fire Service assistant deputy commissioner Jason Heffernan, who has also been the agency’s director of response and coordination since 2017, said severe weather and multiple fires across the state may have delayed the sending of the only contracted line scan aircraft to the Far South Coast on the day of the fire.

The inquiry had earlier heard while flames were impacting on Thompson Dr around 3pm, a “shelter now” warning to residents was not sent out until more than half an hour later.

Mr Heffernan said during earlier discussions, the raising of the alert level was not considered.

“Information to ourselves at that point in time did not give an indication it was warranted,” Mr Heffernan told the inquiry.

A warning was sent out at 3.48pm, with a broader warning at 3.58pm and another at 5.36pm, he said.

The inquiry heard situation reports can “lag” behind situational awareness on the fire ground, with Mr Heffernan adding that “ideally” he would like it to be more accurate.

He said the state air desk passed him information between 3pm and 3.30pm that the fire had started to “spot” towards Tathra, and had crossed the river.

He agreed that at that time it was likely Tathra would be significantly impacted by the fire.

Mr Heffernan told the inquiry alert warnings are only activated following a call from an incident controller via a “red phone” and a discussion between members of the warnings team.

He told the inquiry he was not aware of research which had found many Tathra residents did not receive a warning, nor was he aware a mobile phone tower had been damaged in the fire.

Mr Heffernan said he is concerned with issuing warnings in isolated coastal communities with “one road in and one road out”.

“I’m always concerned with issuing warnings in those circumstances, because, again, we need to make sure we’re not inadvertently putting people at risk by asking them to go to certain places, unless we are absolutely sure that it is safe passage,” he told the inquiry.

On Friday, the inquiry heard manager of the Far South Coast team Superintendent John Cullen discussed raising the alert level of the blaze with the major incident controller around 2pm on March 18, 2018.

Mr Heffernan said the contact he was aware of was a call between Superintendent Cullen and the major incident controller at 12.55pm and a further call around 3pm.

He told the inquiry he had checked call recordings after Superintendent Cullen gave evidence on Friday.

Mr Heffernan told the inquiry a call was made at 3.20pm requesting the alert level be raised, with the lifting officially taking place at 3.47pm.

Under the guidance of Deputy State Coroner Elaine Truscott, the three-week long inquiry will investigate the origin and cause of the fire, as well as the management of energy infrastructure, the management of fuel loads before the fire and the response of emergency services.

The fire burned through more than 1000 hectares of forest, causing $63.5million worth of damage, and destroying 56 homes and 35 outbuildings in and around Tathra.

Mr Heffernan provided three statements to the inquiry, with one written in conjunction with Fire and Rescue NSW.

Mr Heffernan told the inquiry the major incident controller on the day of the fire was Chief Superintendent Ken Hall, who was also the regional manager.

He said a number of fires in the Bega Valley had all available firefighting resources on hand, and conversations were being held to pull resources from other regions.

Mr Heffernan told the inquiry the roll-out of an automated vehicle location system will allow the agency to better allocate resources during bushfires.

He said the Far South Coast will be involved in a future pilot program involving testing mobile data terminals, allowing for an improved automated vehicle location system.

The inquiry heard Mr Heffernan could not discuss any recommendations from the currently embargoed NSW Bushfire Inquiry.

Earlier in the day, the inquiry heard from Bega Valley Shire Council’s environment and sustainability coordinator Derek van Bracht, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service’s area manager Alan Henderson, who discussed fuel load management in the region.

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