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Natural disasters

Australian officials defend early warning system after devastating Tathra fire

Greens anger PM Turnbull by trying to blame New South Wales bush fire on lack of renewable energy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 9:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 9:15pm

The New South Wales government has defended warnings to the residents of Tathra before the devastating fire that tore through the far south coast, displacing hundreds of residents and destroying about 100 buildings.

Firefighters saved about 398 homes from the fast-moving, erratic fire that hit the small seaside village and the Bega valley on Sunday afternoon.

The fire destroyed about 69 houses, 30 caravans or cabins, and damaged 39 houses. It was the product of a “perfect storm”, according to the Rural Fire Service, fuelled by hot conditions, strong winds, low humidity and extremely dry bush.

Hundreds of residents had fled to nearby Bega showgrounds, and had still not been let back into Tathra on Monday night. That left many, like Sharon Stevens, fearing for their homes or businesses.

“It is a very disorientating, surreal day,” Stevens said. “To realise your small, cohesive community was not impenetrable by fire, even though surrounded by bush, is a shock.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull activated the national disaster emergency relief scheme on Monday after visiting the devastating scene.

“That means that there will be support available, immediate support for those suffering from personal hardship,” he said. “There will also be ongoing support for those who have lost their home and content and support for any public infrastructure that has been damaged.”

Some locals, however, were unaware of the danger after failing to receive text messages through the automated phone alert system used by NSW emergency services.

Tathra’s phone reception is notoriously bad, even on normal days. Some residents reported only being warned by a knock on the door from firefighters or police.

Turnbull said the government would “look into” any problems with the system.

The director general of Emergency Management Australia, Mark Crosweller, said he would work closely with the NSW Rural Fire Service to ensure “protocols, processes were in place, technology was up and running”.

“This was an incredibly fast-moving fire – erratic, difficult wind conditions, difficult conditions on the fire ground,” Crosweller said. “My sense is the warnings came out in a timely way, but it’s a very, very confused operational environment.”

Gladys Berejiklian, the NSW premier, said she was confident the systems worked as they should. She also visited the region on Monday afternoon.

“I’m confident that every effort was made to tell people at the right time,” she said.

The RFS commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, said the fast-moving fire was complicated by a storm of embers. Fitzsimmons said Tathra had been “raining embers” on Sunday afternoon. He said it was a wonder that no one was seriously injured or killed.

“A lot of these coastal villages and towns, a lot of them are ... one or two roads in or out. Once the fire is impacting you’ve got to be really careful if you can even get out of towns like this,” he said. “It ran so quickly it went seven or eight kilometres just in a couple of hours, it really went very fast. Not only did you have the main fire front, but you had these ember storms. The village of Tathra was raining embers.”

Earlier on Monday, the Australian Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, complained that the federal government had been slowing the transition to renewable energy, trying to blame the fires on human activity.

“We are seeing climate change in our everyday lives have an impact on the risk of bush fires to our communities,” Di Natale told parliament.

That provoked an angry response from Turnbull, who said he was “disappointed that the Greens would try to politicise an event like this”.

“I mean this has been shocking destruction of property, as we’ve just said,” Turnbull said. “Thank heaven there have been no lives lost, but that’s a great tribute to the community, to the firefighters, to all of that preparation and resilience. But this is not the time to politicise a disaster like this.”