Poor communication at multiple levels - between RFS crews and hierarchy, with landholders and cross-border - is at the crux of frustrations over the way February's Jennings and Tabulam bushfires were handled, it emerged at a community debrief meeting conducted in Tenterfield on Wednesday night.
Thinly-stretched resources fatigued by what RFS Northern Tablelands superintendent Chris Wallbridge called a two-year-long fire season contributed to the woes, as did the coincidence of three major burns (Tingha along with the Tenterfield fires) all within the Northern Tablelands region. This necessitated the mobilisation of strike crews from throughout the state, who in some cases were inexperienced in dealing with the infernos they encountered in rough terrain.
Fuel buildup in National Parks is being blamed by many landholders for the ferocity of the fires, but this was disputed by several speakers.
RFS incident controller Michael Brett said all land managers, including the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), have an obligation to manage fire hazard. He said any suggestions that the NPWS doesn't reduce its fire hazzard are untrue, although this didn't go down well with others in the audience. He also noted that NPWS fire crews spent two weeks fighting fires in Tabulam, where they don't have land.
NPWS area manager Michael Lieberman said his team had met all of their targets each year on the 300,000 hectares under their management (while other areas in the state hadn't), and the fires were due to a weather-generated event involving drought, hot conditions and strong winds.
"We are committed to hazard reduction," he said. "We do it, and do it well."
He encouraged landholders to come and talk to staff if they have any concerns.
Rural Fire Service Association (RFSA) Northern Tablelands group officer Brian McDonough concurred, saying regardless of the fuel load this fire was going to run. He said the RFS needs more volunteers to tackle such incidents.
Still landholder Phil Yates said the National Park behind him hadn't been burned in 29 years and the stringent conditions on fire permits made him reluctant to carry out burns lest they escape into the park and he has to pay the price.
"How do we change regulations and policies to make them (NPWS) burn, so that we can?" he asked.
Bronwyn Petrie, a Tenterfield councillor and chair of the NSW Farmers Association, said the NPWS might be meeting its targets, but the targets are wrong. Policy dictates fire intervals of up to 40 or even 60 years depending on the vegetation type.
"This is granite country and we get lightning strikes. This needs to change."
(Rod Dowe noted there were no fuel hazard problems in Bald Rock National Park when it was in private ownership.)
Mrs Petrie would like to see an indigenous fire crew delegated to carry out fuel reduction. Moonbahlene Aboriginal Land Council's Helen Duroux is already reaching out to professional indigenous fire technicians to conduct workshops with landholders, and perhaps do demonstrations on Moonbahlene property.
Mr McDonough noted these techniques are resource-dependent requiring a lot of people, and not suited to large areas.
Lynton Rhodes suggested that those advocating against burns-offs in order protect wildlife should face court to justify the loss of life in the recent bushfires.
Several of the suggestions for improvement were already on the RFS radar, including an increase in staff (there are currently five officers in the Northern Tablelands office), a return to CB radios as a communication standard, and a funded management plan for the region's network of 480 registered fire trails.
There was only one RFS liaison officer tasked with visiting affected landholders during the fires, and it was day three before the Tenterfield Fire Control Centre was manned, and not by someone with local knowledge.
Mr Brett said that in the lead-up to the meeting 99 per cent of the feedback had been positive, but the organisation was keen to take on suggestions to improve the response to future emergencies. (Any discussion on the causes of the fires was stymied due to ongoing legal action.)
He said the move away from CB radios was regrettable. While RFS crews could communicate with each other they couldn't talk to landholders, and this was a duty of care issue as landholders become casual firefighters when they come onto the fireground.
RFSA is also pushing for a re-adoption of CB radios.
"We've got to return to that," Mr Brett said.
"This will break down that misinformation."
He said the need to have more than one liaison officer per fire will also be reported to the RFS commissioner. Two, three, four or more could be required, depending on the complexity of the fire.
"We just don't have enough people. Fatigue has become a big issue.
"As an organisation we have a lot of capability, but at this stage of the season we should be backing off."
The Northern Tablelands RFS has dealt with 290 incidents between Christmas and March 15 alone.
Operationally there were reports of farms dams being emptied in the firefighting effort followed by delays in them being replenished, long delays in water being delivered to crews on the firefront, the no-fly-zone associated with the border army base restricting firefighting options, and a reluctance to take advantage of local knowledge.
All feedback will be included in the official RFS debrief on the incident, which is yet to happen.
Ultimately, however, personal responsibility in the face of the fire was found lacking in some instances. Mr Betts said RFS crews sometimes couldn't make it up the driveway to save burning homes. He said some were indefendible, built in the scrub and with no fire plan.
Mr Petty said council was unaware of the existence of many of the structures, which had been built without development application approval.
There were calls for community action to address fuel levels, potentially through an online petition. Tracey Morton said the community needs to take back its rights and earn some respect as the local authority on the issue.
"We need to make the decision ourselves and have some power, instead of just bitching and whining in the pub," she said.