A former emergency services chief has described the dangerous and shambolic evacuation of his community when bushfires tore through the area on New Year’s Eve.
Peter Dunn, former ACT Emergency Services Authority commissioner, is one of six ex-chiefs appearing at the bushfire royal commission on Monday.
In a submission, Mr Dunn said the evacuation of residents and visitors from the Conjola area on the NSW south coast was disorganised.
He called for the development of a rapid response force which could be immediately deployed by the Commonwealth during a dangerous event.
The force could be made up of full-time responders positioned within state or territory emergency agencies, suggesting it be nationally controlled and equipped.
Mr Dunn described the shambolic and dangerous evacuation that took place when bushfires took the Conjola community by surprise.
He said panicking residents headed for the beach through a caravan park, where off-duty firefighters and a retired police officer had to force people to abandon their cars at the entrance and walk or run to the beach.
Many Conjola Park residents used boats provided by locals and tourists to evacuate using Lake Conjola.
“Many subsequently found that, as the mouth of the lake had been allowed to fill with sand, they became dangerously stranded in the middle of the lake with fires raging on all sides,” Mr Dunn said in submission made in his role as co-ordinator of Conjola’s volunteer community recovery team.
“Very young children and people with disabilities were at risk when trying to reach the beach safely.”
Mr Dunn said the evacuation of holiday makers on the day after the bushfire was equally disorganised, noting the road from Lake Conjola to the Princes Highway was still unsafe due to active fire, fallen trees and downed power lines.
It took on average five to six hours to travel the six kilometres to the highway.
Mr Dunn said the community-led recovery effort was continuing in the Conjola area, where the bushfires killed three people and destroyed 121 homes.
Mr Dunn will be one of six former state and territory fire and emergency services chiefs appearing at a Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements hearing on Monday.