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The Mt Wilson

14 December 2019 - 4 February 2020
Background Information

The NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) escaped Mt Wilson Backburn on 14 December 2019 started a bushfire in the Blue Mountains that burnt for 53 days. APPENDIX 1. It impacted the towns of Mt Wilson, Mt Tomah, Berambing, Bilpin, Kurrajong Heights, Bell, Mt Victoria, and Blackheath. It burnt 63,700 hectares and damaged 20 homes. APPENDIX 2. The escaped fire threatened thousands of homes in the Hawkesbury, Blue Mountains and Penrith Local Government Areas causing stress and anxiety for tens of thousands of people.

On 13 December 2019 the RFS plan was not to light the Mt Wilson Backburn unless the Gospers Mountain Fire breached pre-determined natural containment lines. These natural containment lines were deep ravines and creeks that lay between the fire front and properties at Mt Wilson, Mt Irvine, Mt Tomah and Berambing. The effectiveness of these containment lines was confirmed when the Gospers Mountain Fire went out before ever reaching Mt Wilson, Mt Irvine, Mt Tomah, Berambing and surrounding communities, and before the Mt Wilson Backburn was eventually declared out on 4 February 2020. This containment strategy was well understood by the communities of Mt Wilson, Mt Irvine, Mt Tomah and Berambing.

On 14 December 2019 the RFS changed this strategy and lit a backburn at the corner of Bells Line Road and Mt Wilson Road, at a location with a previous history of escaped backburns that have burnt out the local communities and the World Heritage Areas of the Blue Mountains National Park. The RFS did not communicate this change of strategy to the local communities of Mt Wilson, Mt Irvine, Mt Tomah and Berambing until 15 December when the backburn had escaped and was threatening properties. The RFS did not identify their Mt Wilson Backburn as being a threat to these communities by issues public warnings until it was too late to leave, and they were overrun by fire.

Relevant Legislation, Policy and Procedures

THE RURAL FIRES ACT 1997 – requires the Service to issue public warnings

The Rural Fire Service Act requires the Service to issue public warnings about fires.
Section 9. Functions of Service:
  1. The NSW Rural Fire Service has the following functions—


(a)  to provide rural fire services for New South Wales,

(b)  to issue public warnings about bush fires and bush fire threats in the State for the purpose of protecting life and property,

How the RFS issues Public Warnings about fire threats

The RFS utilises a variety of communication channels and tools to broadcast public warnings. A 2015 RFS video advertisement titled “Bush Fire Fact - Stay Informed” described the step by step process an individual should take to stay informed about RFS warnings & communication about fire threats. The video was in circulation on the official NSW RFS YouTube channel during 2019.

The video explains:

  1. “Firstly, don’t rely on someone telling you about a fire. Visit the Fires Near Me page on the RFS website or download the Fires Near Me app to see if there are any fires nearby.”

  2. “Secondly, follow the Rural Fire Service on Twitter and Facebook for updates.”

  3. “Thirdly, if there is a fire, stay up to date by listening to local radio for updates.”

  4. “And if you get a phone call or text message warning, take it seriously and act. Getting ready for a bushfire is easier than you think.”

    Video available at:


NSW Rural Fire Service - Bush Fire Fact - Stay Informed

NSW Rural Fire Service - Bush Fire Fact - Stay Informed

Play Video

The Act also requires under Section 9 Functions of the Service:

(3)  The Service is to have regard to the principles of ecologically sustainable development described in section 6 (2) of the Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991 in carrying out any function that affects the environment.

(4)  In this section rural fire services includes the following—

(a)  services for the prevention, mitigation, and suppression of fires in rural fire districts,

(b)  the protection of persons from dangers to their safety and health, and property from destruction or damage, arising from fires in rural fire districts,

(b1) the protection of infrastructure and environmental, economic, cultural, agricultural and community assets from destruction or damage arising from fires in rural fire districts,

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