Tumut group renews calls for fire-breaks

The ADF completed 12km of the 70km long fire break while the fires were still burning.

Six months ago, the Tumut Community Association (TCA) was calling for fire breaks to be made around populated areas in the Snowy Valleys. 

“We were and are frustrated and very concerned that the fire breaks were not done along with other essential work of slashing grass and removing vegetation and rubbish around the perimeter of Tumut and in the region of the common,” said the TCA’s Christine Webb. 

On November 21, the TCA held a public meeting, inviting representatives from the Rural Fire Service, National Parks, Forestry and Snowy Valleys Council. The meeting was cut short due to insufficient representation from the RFS who were already attending fires in the region. The Mayor was also not present. 

The Association expected to hold another meeting to raise the topic, but the bushfire season began in earnest, further proving the points which the Association had hoped to make.

“It’s something we have had on the agenda for some time,” TCA President Col Locke told The Times in November. They were concerned after data from consulting agency Risk Frontiers highlighted Tumut as the most bushfire prone area in the Riverina due to the number of homes (more than 240) located within 100 metres of a timbered area.

TCA Secretary Christine Webb said the major complication in getting a fire break established around the town was getting all the agencies responsible for the timbered areas to agree on a plan. Everyone agreed that there was a danger that the timber and rubbish collecting along the edges of Tumut would pose a fire threat, and individual homeowners were urged to clear their properties.

No one anticipated the extent of the 2020 Black Summer bushfires. 

Now, the Association is renewing their calls for improved fire breaks and inter-agency cooperation.

“The Tumut Community Association Incorporated has had ongoing concerns about fire protection for Tumut and other towns within our council region and based on local knowledge about risk factors including weather, wind direction and drought. Members of our association predicted a major catastrophe emanating to the west of Tumut,” wrote Ms Webb in their submission the Bushfires Royal Commission, which closed to public comment last week on Tuesday (April 28).

Ms Webb said she worked closely with other members of the Association to put their thoughts on paper and plead with the Commission for reducing fire hazards around Tumut, including “an immediate permanent fire abatement zone surrounding Tumut by bulldozing or other means and permanent green zones to provide a buffer for the town from trees and vegetation.”

The Association also suggested a warning system for Tumut, which might include sirens, when other forms of communication like phones and radios fail.

“The communication… we’re all concerned about that,” said Ms Webb. “Some of the elderly people around town just did not know what was going on.

“When all those people were burned down in the fire in Victoria, the radio didn’t work, the phone didn’t work and they just didn’t know what was going on.”

The Commission has so far received more than 1400 public submissions since they opened up to public comment on March 2, with more still expected to arrive by mail. The official figures showed that 78% of the submissions came from private individuals, with the remainder coming from organisations.

As of last Thursday, there had been more than 190 verbal submissions made over the phone and 1230 made online. 

The combined submissions made up 12,552 pages.

The Commission will now review each submission against its terms of reference and hold public hearings in two phases during late May and late June. 

Ms Webb is hopeful that the recommendations from the McLeod report on the Inquiry into the Operational Response to the January 2003 Bushfires in the ACT could be implemented in Tumut, specifically that “local planning include green zones, fire abatement areas around residential areas for fire protection, that access to fire prone areas be maintained to allow for fire-fighting, that local knowledge be used in planning and consultation” for future fire events.

While the Community Association has renewed its calls for greater planning and early warning systems, they were also generous in their praise for the “selflessness of the [fire fighting] brigades,” saying each of the fire fighters and heavy machinery operators “deserves a medal for their bravery.”

Ms Webb said there is still a need for fire breaks/abatements and green zones around Tumut and other towns, despite the recent devastating burns. 

“The fires of the last season have not provided any protection for Tumut against future fires as there is a great deal of unburnt land between Tumut and the fire ground,” she said, insisting that there need to be new fire breaks and abatements prepared around local towns before every fire season.  

“Australian communities have been warned that our fire seasons are going to get longer and the fires more savage and it is of utmost importance that our towns are adequately prepared now to prevent loss of life and property.”