At 5.30pm on Friday, November 8, 2019 the power failed at Elands. Six hours later telephone communication failed.
A bushfire that had started in Tapin Tops National Park weeks earlier, was bearing down on Caparra, Elands, Bobin and Marlee.
The Elands community would be without power and communication for a week.
And within a few days the situation got a lot worse.
On Tuesday, November 12 the Rural Fire Service issued an emergency warning: The Rumba Dump fire is burning in the area of Elands, Bobin and Marlee. The fire has breached containment lines and is spreading quickly. If you are in the area of Elands, Bobin, Marlee and areas north west of Wingham, seek shelter as the fire front arrives. Protect yourself from the heat of the fire.
That Tuesday the Manning Valley was shrouded in heavy smoke and residents were putting their bushfire action plans in place while black leaves and bark rained down. Frustratingly, the Fires Near Me app had no information on the Rumba Dump fire and residents looking at the tinder dry Yaratt State Forest, Brimbin and Careys Mountain were left to wonder how close the fire was.
“Communications catastrophically failed” the Elands community, Mike Roze from Bulga Plateau Rural Fire Service told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.
“The Fires Near Me app was inaccurate to the point of being dangerous. Many times it didn’t even display active fires.
“This is unacceptable in a time of crisis. Informed decisions could not be made.”
In his submission to the Royal Commission, Mr Roze tackles many subjects, including climate change and logging.
Mr Roze observed that the Bulga Plateau fire burned most intensely in eucalyptus regeneration.
“Many patches of rainforest understorey did not burn and rainforest remnants significantly slowed the fire and in many places stopped it,” he said in his submission.
“Drought, exasperated through climate change, was a significant contributor to the devastating nature of the fire.
“Logging has been proved to be a significant contributor to forest flammability. Logging both dries out the forest by removing the canopy and introducing more sunlight. It leaves massive piles of debris on the floor and leads to rapid growth of eucalyptus and weeds which suck up further moisture.
“Ending logging of public lands, especially near at-risk communities, should be considered,” he said.
In his submission to the Royal Commission, Mr Roze described how the community pulled together to equip a dozen utes or trailers with water tanks, fire pumps and hoses, two-way radios and overhead sprinklers.
“These were invaluable in keeping watch and controlling small outbreaks where the local RFS was overstretched,” he said.
The Elands community established a support hub at the old Elands sawmill and served more than 1000 meals to firefighters. Shower and toilet facilities and a “viable” communication network was also available when Telstra communication failed.
Mr Roze said the Bulga Plateau RFS, with very few active members, was able to provide almost 24 hour support during the month-long fire crisis.
“The catastrophic fire which destroyed Bobin and attacked the Bulga Plateau originated from a source which had been burning for a month. It had not been given a state priority and had not been adequately dealt with.
“A neighbouring RFS brigade, Mount George, had a roll over in their truck and occupants were seriously injured. Roll-over protection must be incorporated into all RFS vehicles.”
The catastrophic fire which destroyed Bobin and attacked the Bulga Plateau originated from a source which had been burning for a month. It had not been given a state priority and had not been adequately dealt with.
Mr Roze had several suggestions regarding keeping communities safe in fire situations.
- Access and instruction should be provided to a local responsible authority, possibly the RFS, to install and fuel a portable generator at phone towers and exchanges in order to keep communication channels open.
- RFS trucks be fitted with digital communication technology including screen displays and vehicle locations be mapped in real time.
- Every RFS truck must have a hand-held digital mapping device that has up to date mapping of the actual firefront
- RFS members on the fireground should be provided with modern digital hand-help radios that log messages, display caller ID and log the position of the calling device
- Roll over protection must be fitted into all RFS vehicles