Sir Ivan fire inquest hears Rural Fire Service was distrusted

NATURAL DISASTER: Cattle and smoke near the Sir Ivan fire. Photo: DEAN SEWELL
NATURAL DISASTER: Cattle and smoke near the Sir Ivan fire. Photo: DEAN SEWELL

Distrust some Central West residents have felt towards the Rural Fire Service (RFS) "long predates" the 2017 Sir Ivan bushfire, an inquest has heard.

The coroner is investigating circumstances surrounding the blaze that burned about 55,000 hectares of land, destroyed dozens of homes and killed thousands of animals in the Dunedoo, Coolah and Cassilis districts.

A week of hearings began in Dubbo on Monday. The counsel assisting the coroner, Donna Ward, confirmed that evidence was likely to suggest the February 2017 disaster was caused by lightning which struck a fence.

LEFT DEVASTATED: Chris Wentworth-Brown outside his home in the tiny village of Uarbry, which was virtually wiped out in the 2017 disaster. Photo: BELINDA SOOLE

LEFT DEVASTATED: Chris Wentworth-Brown outside his home in the tiny village of Uarbry, which was virtually wiped out in the 2017 disaster. Photo: BELINDA SOOLE

In her opening address, Ms Ward said some land owners had reported feeling isolated and disengaged from the RFS.

She told the inquest the level of distrust felt by some community members towards the RFS should be acknowledged, long predated the 2017 fire and influenced the way some people chose to fight fires themselves.

Two witnesses gave evidence on the first day of the Dubbo hearings.

While Cassilis land owner Paul Martin spoke positively about some of the support the RFS provided, he was critical of some decisions which were made.

WILD WEATHER: The 2017 Sir Ivan bushfire devastated small central west communities. Photo: CAROLYN HEALEY

WILD WEATHER: The 2017 Sir Ivan bushfire devastated small central west communities. Photo: CAROLYN HEALEY

As the bushfire disaster unfolded, Mr Martin told the inquest he recalled seeing about 30 RFS trucks in Cassilis which he suggested could have been put to better use on properties. He claimed an RFS volunteer told him protecting the village was the priority.

After the fire, Mr Martin told the inquest he was given no opportunity to have a "one-on-one" debrief discussion with the RFS but Ms Ward said "town hall style" meetings were organised by the RFS after the fire.

SAD SCENE: Livestock being relocated from near Coolah as smoke from the Sir Ivan fire east of Dunedoo, seen in the background, on Sunday. Photo: ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

SAD SCENE: Livestock being relocated from near Coolah as smoke from the Sir Ivan fire east of Dunedoo, seen in the background, on Sunday. Photo: ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

Mr Martin confirmed he did attend a meeting which he said failed to result in answers to his questions being obtained.

Mr Martin also told the inquest he did not ask Local Land Services to refill dams on his property because he was unaware that was one of the organisation's functions.

SCORCHED LANDSCAPE: Devastating scenes from the 2017 bushfire. Photo: TRACEY COULSON -GREEN (ULAN ROAD)

SCORCHED LANDSCAPE: Devastating scenes from the 2017 bushfire. Photo: TRACEY COULSON -GREEN (ULAN ROAD)

When RFS district coordinator Michael Robinson gave evidence he agreed with Ms Ward's assessment that decent rainfall-fuelled pasture growth in 2016 created a tension between maintaining assets and managing fire risks that was a dilemma for land owners.

Ms Ward said during a previous week of hearings in Mudgee in June, evidence of a breakdown in communications between some land owners and the RFS had emerged.

This was influenced by a perception the RFS was "top heavy" and lacking local control, she said.

The inquest continues.

This story Sir Ivan fire inquest hears Rural Fire Service was distrusted first appeared on Wellington Times.