Rural Fire Service slams Tathra bushfire leak as 'disgusting and disgraceful’

The Rural Fire Service was on scene within 15 minutes of the first triple zero calls, but declined offers for help from NSW Fire and Rescue until the fire was baring down on Tathra's streets. Photo: AAP
The Rural Fire Service was on scene within 15 minutes of the first triple zero calls, but declined offers for help from NSW Fire and Rescue until the fire was baring down on Tathra's streets. Photo: AAP

The Rural Fire Service has called a leak from NSW Fire and Rescue "disgraceful and disgusting," after it was revealed it rejected offers for help from firefighters before Tathra was engulfed in a fire that burned 69 homes to the ground.

The escalation from the top of the Rural Fire Service comes as Fire and Rescue NSW launches an investigation into the leak, which showed the RFS only asked for help three hours after the fire began in the Bega Valley.

RFS inspector Ben Shepherd said "any suggestion that we would hold back on fires while some of our own volunteers houses go up is disgusting".

He told Fairfax Media that putting an urban fire truck on a fire trail was like putting a porsche on a dirt track.

"You just don't do it."

Call logs released on Tuesday showed the RFS was on scene within 15 minutes after the first triple-zero calls, but declined multiple offers for help from NSW Fire and Rescue as it raced through the bush until the fire was baring down on the town's suburban streets.

RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said while the fire was burning in remote mountainous terrain, "it would have been dangerous to have [Fire NSW] there".

The Fire Brigade Employees’ Union of NSW said the blow-up was evidence of a "turf war" between the state's only firefighting organisations.

Sources within both FRNSW and the RFS believe union members could be the source of the leak. When asked on Tuesday, the union did not deny that members could have been responsible.

FBEU State Secretary Leighton Drury said the "excuses coming of out RFS Head Office today don't stack up."

RFS Inspector Ben Shepherd briefs Labor Senator Deborah O'Neill, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Labor MP Mike Kelly in the aftermath of the Tathra bushfire. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

RFS Inspector Ben Shepherd briefs Labor Senator Deborah O'Neill, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Labor MP Mike Kelly in the aftermath of the Tathra bushfire. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

"The competition between the state’s two fire services is dysfunctional and dangerous. In this case it has contributed to the loss of scores of homes that may have been saved had FRNSW urban crews been in Tathra. It has to stop."

A spokeswoman for FRNSW downplayed any tension between the two organisations.

"Due to the initial location of the fire in remote and rugged bushland, the nearest FRNSW resources, being a city (urban) fire truck and hazardous materials van, were not suitable," she said.

"FRNSW provided co-operative and effective assistance to the RFS when the fire escalated and life and property protection was required, and is still doing so today."

Local MP Mike Kelly said the weather conditions for the fire were bizarre, with temperatures reaching record March highs on Sunday.

"I'm not sure what else could have been done to deal with that sort of situation, frankly," he said.

Scores of residents were bussed through the town on Tuesday to see if their homes were still standing but will be unable to leave the bus due to fears that asbestos dust has contaminated the bushfire-stricken streets.

While some have begun returning home despite the road blocks in place, hundreds more will have to wait until Wednesday before being officially allowed back into the seaside town due to concerns over asbestos particle contaminating the fire-stricken streets.

Labor leader Bill Shorten visited the area on Tuesday morning after meeting with residents still locked out of the area and said he was taken aback by the scale of the fire’s destruction.

Mr Shorten said there was a "legitimate debate about the effect of climate change,” a day after Greens leader Richard Di Natale blamed global warming for the Tathra bushfire.

He warned insurers they “would be on display” over their response to the disaster.

“Sort out the claims quickly, don’t stuff people around,” he said, hinting at the public backlash that resulted in the nation’s largest insurers being hauled before the banking royal commission.

“This is the kind of disaster that people pay their premiums for and expect to get the service they paid for.”

Insurers have already begun fencing off areas and preparing to send in teams to do assessments before residents are expected to be allowed back into the town on Wednesday.

This story Rural Fire Service slams Tathra leak as 'disgusting and disgraceful’ first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.