With half of the Tathra bushfire evacuees allowed to return home, the NSW Government has announced an independent review into the Tathra fire following allegations of a “turf war” between fire authorities.
Former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty will lead the review into the fire that destroyed at least 69 homes and damaged a further 39 properties as it tore through Tathra in the state’s south.
Minister for Emergency Services Troy Grant said the investigation would centre on the call taking and dispatch arrangements of both the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW).
“Mr Keelty has the credentials and the experience to properly review the operational response to the Bega Valley fire, having led an independent inquiry into the 2011 Perth Hills bushfire and the 2012 Margaret River bushfire,” he said.
“His expertise will ensure an independent assessment of the events surrounding this natural disaster.”
The announcement comes after the Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU) accused the NSW RFS of rejecting offers of support from FRNSW because of an ongoing “turf war” between the two fire services.
It also comes amid reports the first information many Tathra residents received about the bushfire was a text message to evacuate.
Mr Grant said the immediate priority was to stop the fire and any review would not begin until the community was able to return to their homes.
“Our firefighters have gone above and beyond for their community, as they always do,” Mr Grant said.
This review is by no means a criticism of our dedicated and hardworking firey, rather the appropriate course of action to ensure community confidence in our emergency service agencies.”
Mr Grant said despite the loss and damage to property, no lives were lost and 398 homes were saved, which was “thanks to the hard work” of all firefighters involved.
Some locals return home, others stuck
Locals who lost their homes in the Tathra bushfire face a lengthy wait in temporary accommodation before they are able to return to their razed properties.
Many of the roadblocks surrounding the surfside village were pushed back on Wednesday leaving about half of the town inaccessible.
About 40 streets are now open to residents.
But homes that have been destroyed or damaged remain off-limits amid concerns of hazardous asbestos and crumbling structures.
Rural Fire Service spokesman Matt Reeves said crews had examined the worst-hit properties and if suspected asbestos was found the sites were taped off pending full laboratory tests.
“If forensic tests confirm the presence of asbestos the properties will eventually be handed over to people through the council who will work with the Environmental Protection Agency,” he said on Wednesday.
Mr Reeves said the clean-up and return of contaminated properties would likely be handled case-by-case with landholders liaising with authorities.
Dozens of homes that were destroyed or damaged have asbestos warnings signs fixed to their fences.
Hazardous material crews are moving through the town dousing potentially dangerous rubble with a pink glue-like substance to help prevent asbestos fibres being stirred up by wind or future clearing work.
Many of the now homeless Tathra residents are staying with friends or family in nearby Bega while others, like Don Tetley, have already started moving on.
The NSW Department of Family and Community Services, along with numerous other charities, has maintained a constant presence in the Bega evacuation centre attempting to find accommodation for people.
Joanne Coulton, who runs holiday accomodation Esther Lodge, says she’ll open her units to displaced locals once she’s allowed to return to Tathra.
“I’ve got bookings for Easter but I’m in two minds,” she told AAP on Wednesday.
“I’ll offer them to local people first and, if they want it, they’ll have first preference.
“When you get a small community like this you have to stick together.”