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‘Horrible mistake’: residents thought cataclysmic fire was days away

People whose towns were burnt by an escaped backburn during the Black Summer bushfires say they had no warning the fire was approaching until it started destroying houses because the NSW Rural Fire Service kept referring to it by the name of a distant bushfire that posed no immediate threat.

The NSW Rural Fire Service still describes the Mount Wilson backburn as part of the Gospers Mountain Fire, which started with a lightning strike on October 26, 2019. The Mount Wilson backburn was lit on December 14, 2019, when the Gospers fire was still 15 kilometres away and in a holding pattern in a deep ravine. It broke containment lines about five hours later and went on to destroy an estimated 63,700 hectares in the Grose Valley and communities along the Bells Line of Road.

The Mount Wilson backburn escaped five hours after it was lit, affecting Mount Wilson, Mount Irvine, Mount Tomah, Berambing and Bilpin, pictured.

The Mount Wilson backburn escaped five hours after it was lit, affecting Mount Wilson, Mount Irvine, Mount Tomah, Berambing and Bilpin, pictured.Credit:Nick Moir

A submission to the NSW Bushfires coronial inquiry, which is due to hear evidence on the Gospers Mountain and Grose Valley fires this week, claims that residents of Bilpin, Mount Tomah and Berambing were blindsided by the fire when it arrived, though the RFS knew it had been out of control for 24 hours.

The Mt Wilson RFS Survivors Group wants the inquiry to consider why the RFS lit the backburn at Mount Wilson when the Gospers fire did not pose an imminent threat and whether it had breached its statutory requirement to issue public warnings about fires.

“The reason for the RFS lighting the Mt Wilson Backburn fire and then calling it the Gospers Mountain Fire remains unknown and continues to cause distress to the communities it burnt out,” the submission says.

The group’s analysis of radio communications and public messaging indicates that the warnings issued by the RFS after the backburn escaped only referred to the Gospers Mountain Fire, which residents of towns in the path of the escaped backburn knew to be some distance away. One family went shopping for baby goods. Another man went out to lunch.

Mount Tomah resident Billy Gruner said he had been briefed by the RFS earlier in the week and assured there was no immediate threat. “We were still on the estimation that the fire from Gospers was probably 14 days away before it rolled through here,” Gruner said, in an account published in the submission. “So we were actually pretty chilled out.”

On social media, the RFS messaging that referred to the Gospers Mountain Fire in relation to what was happening at Mount Wilson caused confusion. One user wrote: “How is Mt Wilson in a north easterly direction? That would mean it’s moving in a south westerly direction of the fire?” Another: “Can the map area of the GOSPERS MOUNTAIN FIRE be put back on the map. We can’t see what is happening and where – please!”

The first watch and act warning that specifically mentioned communities that would be affected – Mount Tomah and Berambing – was at 11.55am on December 15. RFS radio communications indicate that officers on the ground requested for the warning be upgraded to emergency, but this was rejected by the incident controller.

An emergency report was not issued until 4.13pm on December 15, three hours after it had been requested and by which time it was too late to leave. It destroyed about 20 houses.

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Criticism of the fire warning system echoes more recent concerns about the flood warning system in the Northern Rivers, where the community was caught off guard by the scale of the event. A grant application by Lismore Council for an upgraded warning system that would include upstream gauges and CCTV monitoring was knocked back three days before the first flood hit on February 28.

Bilpin RFS captain Sean Lonergan said his brigade knew from the start that the backburn had broken containment lines, but he did not anticipate how fast it would move towards his community.

“It just travelled so quickly,” Lonergan said. “Mount Wilson is a fair way away from Bilpin and the approach should have been two or three days, but it was there the next day.”

The backburn should simply not have been lit, he said. “It was just a horrible mistake.”

The NSW Rural Fire Service said in a written statement that it would be inappropriate to comment while the coronial inquiry was underway.

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