Broken gear makes fireys fear next season

Firefighters in one of the Australia’s most bushfire-prone areas have revealed how they were left facing seven major bushfire emergencies with broken equipment, barely enough food and without their main tanker.

In a scathing submission to the NSW independent Bushfire Inquiry, the Katoomba/Leura Volunteer Rural Fire Brigade have revealed how volunteers had to become “bush mechanics” to keep equipment working as some of the worst bushfires ever gripped NSW.

The brigade, founded in 1965, also slammed the NSW Rural Fire Service State Operations command for ordering crews to abandon an active backburn instead of taking the advice of those on the fireground.

The submission is among almost 2000 submissions sent to the inquiry, which handed its report to Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Friday.

Among its key criticisms of NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) in its preparedness was the lack of “serviceable” firefighting equipment.

Members of the Katoomba/Leura Volunteer Rural Fire Brigade during the 2019-2020 bushfires.
Members of the Katoomba/Leura Volunteer Rural Fire Brigade during the 2019-2020 bushfires.
Firefighters clean up after containing a bushfire at Honeymoon Lookout in Katoomba. Picture: Sean Davey
Firefighters clean up after containing a bushfire at Honeymoon Lookout in Katoomba. 
Firefighters clean up after containing a bushfire at Honeymoon Lookout in Katoomba.

It revealed how its own category 1 fire tanker (Cat 1) and crew were sent to fight fires in northern NSW only for the vehicle not to be returned until March despite the Blue Mountains being “one of the most fire-prone regions” in the world.

The absence of a Cat 1 tanker meant the Katoomba/Leura RFS had to face “no less than seven major bush fire emergencies” in the district without it, “three of which presented existential threats to the entire Blue Mountains community”.

The fire approaches property in Bilpin, in the Blue Mountains. Picture: Jeremy Piper
The fire approaches property in Bilpin, in the Blue Mountains. 
The fire approaches property in Bilpin, in the Blue Mountains.

With its key tanker loaned out, it was given an “old, smaller Cat 7 tanker” from another brigade.

The only problem was the replacement tanker was not roadworthy.

“It had a broken handbrake, and a compromised heat seal beneath the crew leader’s seat, which increased the amount of heat stress and fatigue the crew leader experienced,” the submission said.

“Given the desperate nature of those days in November, December 2019 and January 2020, we were forced to make do, and despite repeated breakdowns and defects, continued to operate that Cat 7 and our own Cat 7 to contribute to the firefighting effort.

“The worst bushfire threat the Blue Mountains has ever experienced in our history, without the use of our primary response vehicle.

“Additionally, the state of our vehicles was such that we have had multiple breakdowns in the field which have had to be addressed by bush mechanic ingenuity to keep these vehicles in the field and firefighters safe.”

When the crew’s Cat 1 tanker was returned six-and-a-half months later, it was “damaged, in extremely poor condition and riddled with defects requiring significant repairs”, the submission said.

NSW Rural Fire Service crews responding to smoke in Woodford, in an area that had already burnt. Picture: Sean Davey
NSW Rural Fire Service crews responding to smoke in Woodford, in an area that had already burnt. 
NSW Rural Fire Service crews responding to smoke in Woodford, in an area that had already burnt.

The firefighters noted how it was not alone in being deprived a tanker, with several other Blue Mountains Brigades “in the same position”.

As for the upcoming bushfire season, the firefighters spoke of their serious concerns about equipment reliability.

With the fire season extending, the brigade has recommended the RFS be given a reserve fleet of fire appliances that could be deployed to different crews when needed.

To address breakdowns, the brigade wants the RFS mobile repair capability to be dramatically increased to keep tankers on site.

The brigade also raised concerns with the lack of rollover protection of firefighting appliances and the absence of efficient fire protection sprinkler systems or cabin sprays on older vehicles.

While noting the coronial inquests into the deaths of firefighters Andrew O’Dwyer, Geoffrey Keaton and Samuel McPaul were not yet completed, all were killed in accidents which involved vehicle rollovers, the submission said.

“These deaths may have been avoided if those vehicles had been adequately retrofitted with internal cabin rollover protection systems,” it said.

Smoke from the Green Wattle Creek fire is seen in the distance as firefighters from the NSW RFS monitor the remnants of the Ruined Castle fire in the Jamieson valley from Echo Point lookout in Katoomba. Picture: AAP Image/Steven Saphore
Smoke from the Green Wattle Creek fire is seen in the distance as firefighters from the NSW RFS monitor the remnants of the Ruined Castle fire in the Jamieson valley from Echo Point lookout in Katoomba. 
Smoke from the Green Wattle Creek fire is seen in the distance as firefighters from the NSW RFS monitor the remnants of the Ruined Castle fire in the Jamieson valley from Echo Point lookout in Katoomba.

The submission was also highly critical of the erosion of local crews from making decisions during a fire emergency, accusing the city-based RFS State Operations crews of making “kneejerk decisions” based on data rather than eyewitness reports.

Citing a backburn ignited as a “last line of defence” for the townships from Wentworth Falls to Woodford, the crews said wrote how they “pleaded” with State Operations to manage the burn.

“There were many phone calls to explain the safety risks of leaving the fire ground but it was to no avail, and we were ordered off,” the submission said.

“We were all in total despair knowing the risk this decision had to the townships.”

A RFS fire crews working to save properties on Ivatt St, Cobar Park near Lithgow. Picture: Tim Hunter
A RFS fire crews working to save properties on Ivatt St, Cobar Park near Lithgow. 
A RFS fire crews working to save properties on Ivatt St, Cobar Park near Lithgow.

When the crews were permitted to return more than an hour later, there were three spot overs and numerous trees alight along the fire trail.

The submission also revealed how firefighters were given “very poor meals”, sometimes little more than dry bread and Vegemite and cheese “which just could not be swallowed with a dry mouth”.

The firefighters said the “calibre” of food did not meet the energy needs of firefighters undertaking a 16 hours a shift.

Blue Mountains volunteer Darren Rodrigo said if there was one message to come out of the inquiry, it was this: “Fix the trucks.”

“It will have the single biggest impact on saving lives,” he said.

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