Backburn report kept secret

Mt Tomah: Property damage on Bells Line of Road in December 2019. Photo by Top Notch Video
Mt Tomah: Property damage on Bells Line of Road in December 2019. Photo by Top Notch Video

The NSW government has refused to release a report into a failed backburn at Mt Wilson during the 2019-20 bushfires, leaving affected residents angry and fire experts in the dark about what lessons could be learnt.

The backburn was started at Mt Wilson on December 14, 2019, in an effort to stop the Gospers Mountain fire.

But a wind change led to embers being blown behind the firefighters. The fire eventually made its way into the Grose Valley, where it destroyed a number of houses and properties.

The RFS has conducted an inquiry into the incident but has not released the findings.

Attempts by Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Harriet Alexander, to get the report released under freedom of information legislation were rejected by the premier's department on the basis that the report would form part of the coroner's brief of evidence.

A justice department spokeswoman told the Gazette information could be withheld if disclosure "could reasonably be expected to prejudice any court proceedings by revealing matter prepared for the purposes of or in relation to current or future proceedings". She said both the Gospers Mountain fire and the Grose Valley fires would be the subject of coronial inquiries.

Residents at Mt Tomah and neighbouring areas say the report should be released.

Dr Billy Grunner, from Mt Tomah, said he and his partner had to make a run for it in their car when the fire from Mt Wilson ripped through their property.

"The government needs to come clean and tell the community what happened on that fateful day where we were all nearly burnt to death by an RFS backburn that got out of control."

Kooryn Sheaves from neighbouring Berambing, said: "I feel completely powerless when the government who started this fire, and then has an inquiry into what went wrong, refuses to tell us what needs to happen to make things better in the future."

Margaret Tadross from Bilpin Fruit Bowl said the report should be made public now.

"The victims have a right to know why the Mt Wilson backburn was lit in such diabolic weather conditions. If we let this go it will only happen again," she said.

The Independent Bushfire Group, an organisation of former bushfire managers with more than 400 years of experience between them, believes firefighters need answers now.

Ian Brown, from the group, said: "We want the government to commission timely and independent technical reviews with root cause analysis of all critical bushfire incidents, as is done in health, aviation and other industries. Waiting for years is unacceptable, and internal reviews are not best practice.

"The outbreak at Mt Wilson caused a whole new fire with widespread impacts. Traumatised volunteers and communities still have no explanation of how it happened... Firefighters and the public need confidence that lessons have been learnt and acted upon."