THE unusually early fires that swept through NSW over the past two days would have proved too fast for any warning system, according to former Rural Fire Services commissioner Phil Koperberg.
The former NSW environment minister and current chairman of the State Emergency Management Committee was yesterday appointed Blue Mountains Emergency Recovery Co-ordinator.
He said there had been worse bushfire disasters in the Blue Mountains – in 1952, 1957 and 1968 – but what was unprecedented was it happening in October.
“It’s not the worst, but it is the earliest. We have never had this in October,” Mr Koperberg said. “This is a feature of slowly evolving climate. We have always had fires, but not of this nature, and not at this time of year, and not accompanied by the record-breaking heat we’ve had.”
He said he had recorded temperatures of 37C at his home in the Blue Mountains, figures extreme even for February, let alone for October. He estimated at least 100 houses had been destroyed in the Blue Mountains alone, with 30 to 40 others seriously damaged. The total could reach 200 properties.
He said his priorities were to co-ordinate federal and state relief for the hundreds affected, including a one-stop shop for residents, to facilitate the payment of insurance claims and to co-ordinate utilities and services responses.
Mr Koperberg said the restoration of services would take some time as there were hundreds of burnt or burning power poles. The fires were a test of the NSW automated telephone emergency warning system, which sends out voice and text messages when bushfires occur.
Senator Doug Cameron, who lives in the Blue Mountains said the system worked well. His family had received two text messages and one voice message on their home phone, and that had helped them decide to evacuate.
He said that Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons had said the speed of the fires had defeated many attempts to evacuate people.
Even as residents’ homes were catching fire they were telephoning emergency services. Mr Koperberg said the warning system was not perfect, but the speed of the fire would have beaten any system. He said that residents had reported a whiff of smoke and 30 seconds later their houses were on fire.
The automated warning system worked on landlines and mobile phones’ billing addresses, but the RFS was talking to telephone companies about improving the service, given smartphones now had GPS and it was possible to know exactly where every mobile was at any given time.
Premier Barry O’Farrell received criticism on social media about cuts to the budget of the Rural Fire Services after he posted pictures of the devastation from a helicopter.
NSW budget papers show a reduction of 3.1 per cent in the RFS community safety budget, and a $ 64 million reduction in the bushfire emergency response budget. The budget papers noted that this year’s budget was “returning to a more normal trend” after a large number of bushfires in 2012-13. Last year the NSW Opposition leader John Robertson called RFS budget cuts “disgraceful”.