RFS tell Coroner they have not investigated Black Summer backburn fire at Mt Wilson that destroyed homes and properties in the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains LGA’s.
20 June 2022 – Mt Wilson RFS Backburn Survivors Group
The Mt Wilson RFS backburn survivors’ group were initially bewildered and then enraged to learn at last week’s Coronial Inquiry into the Black Summer fires that no physical forensic investigation of the origin of the Mt Wilson Backburn that destroyed their homes and properties on 15 December 2019 has occurred.
Evidence given to Coronial Inquiry that no investigation on the origin or cause of the escaped Mt Wilson backburn has been undertaken.
Detective Sergeant Laura Harvey of Hawkesbury Police Command Area directed the NSW Police and RFS Fire Investigator to start their investigation into the origin of the Grose Valley fire at the ignition point of the Mt Wilson backburn on corner Mt Wilson Road and Bells Line Road. However, this did not occur.
NSW Police Fire Investigator Neil Welschinger of the Forensic Services Branch of NSW Police relied on the RFS Fire Investigation Unit to provide information for his report, which ultimately determined that the Grose Valley Fire was caused by the Gospers Mountain Fire.
NSW RFS Fire Investigator Darin Howell told the coroner an unknown RFS staff member at the Katoomba Fire Control Centre said the Grose Valley Fire was a continuation of the Gospers Mountain Fire and that he didn’t have a brief to investigate the Mt Wilson Backburn which started the Grose Valley.
DS Harvey agreed with Counsel Assisting the Coroner that no physical forensic investigation of the origin of the Mt Wilson Backburn or Grose Valley Fires had taken place.
At 9:58am 14 December 2019 the RFS lit a strategic back burn at the corner Bells Line Road and Mt Wilson road on the edge of the Grose Valley. Appendix 6.
The purpose of the back burn was to contain the Gospers Mountain fire which was approximately 12 kilometres from Mt Wilson. Appendix 6.
Past backburns in this area had a history of escaping and burning out the communities in the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains LGA. Appendix 1.
At about 4pm on 15 December 2019 the escaped Mt Wilson Backburn burnt out the communities of Mt Wilson, Mt Tomah, Berambing destroying homes and properties. Appendix 1.
At this time the fire from the escaped Mt Wilson Backburn spread into the Grose Valley and was the cause and origin of what the RFS named the Grose Valley Fire. Appendix 45.
Graphic: Map showing the spread of the escaped RFS Mt Wilson Backburn into the Grose Valley. Yesllow dots indicate the location of the area of investigation requested by DS Harvey and the actual location the RFS and Police carried out their investigation.
NSW Bushfire Coronial Inquiry Hearings 15-17 June 2022
Over the Black Summer 2019/20 Detective Sergeant Laura Harvey of Hawkesbury Police Area Command was tasked with leading the investigation into the Grose Valley and the Mt Wilson RFS escaped backburn fire. She interviewed members of the Mt Wilson RFS backburn Survivors Group and other residents of the community burnt out by the fire for the Coronial Inquiry that would follow.
DS Harvey gave evidence to the Coronial Inquiry on 16 June 2022 that she directed NSW RFS Fire Investigator Darin Howell and Police Forensic Fire Investigator Neil Welschinger to start their investigation into this fire at the intersection of Mt Wilson Road and Bells Line of Road, where the RFS lit the Mt Wilson Backburn on 14 December 2019.
Police Forensic Investigator Welschinger visited the Katoomba Fire Control Centre on 21 January 2020, where he spoke with an unknown RFS coordinator to obtain maps and information about the Grose Valley Fire investigation.
NSW RFS Fire Investigator Darin Howell told the Coroner an unknown RFS staff member at the Katoomba Fire Control Centre that the Grose Valley Fire was a continuation of the Gospers Mountain Fires.
This information led the RFS and Police investigators to a different location 3.2 km away from where the RFS Mt Wilson backburn was started.
When pressed on whether the Grose Valley fire was caused by the escaped Mt Wilson backburn Howell stated that the Mt Wilson Backburn was outside the scope of his investigation.
DS Harvey agreed with Counsel Assisting that as a result no physical forensic investigation of the origin of the Mt Wilson Backburn or Grose Valley Fires had taken place.
Community members listening to the Coronial Inquiry on 16 June were at first bewildered and then outraged to learn that no forensic investigation of the origin of the Mt Wilson Backburn or Grose Valley Fires had taken place.
Photo: Mt Wilson RFS backburn survivors group members supporting Detective Sergeant Laura Harvey for evidence during the coronial inquiry hearing “Go Laura”. The group is seeking a meeting with the Minister for Emergency Services Steph Cooke direct that a forensic investigation be conducted in the Mt Wilson RFS backburn. Second from the right back row is Phil Burkitt and next to him is Dr Billy Gruner.
“Surviving that fire nearly killed me “said Phil Burkett of Berambing Blue Mountain “My whole property was engulfed in fire and if took days to put out. About 3 hours into fighting the fire I suffered a suspected heart attack and was taken by ambulance to hospital. The docs took a couple of hours to clear me and then I was straight back to fire fighting. All I could think of while I was in hospital was that my wife and young son were by themselves in a fiery hell. I think I’m entitled to question why the RFS haven’t investigated their Mt Wilson backburn”
Dr Billy Gruner of Mt Tomah Residents Association and a member of the Mt Wilson RFS Back burn Survivors Group said:
“After waiting 2.5 years its overwhelming that the RFS have not conducted a forensic investigation into the backburn they lit at Mt Wilson 14 December 2019. The community deserves the truth which only a forensic investigation can reveal. We are tearing each other apart in a vicious cycle of blame and guilt. RFS volunteers are blaming each other for being involved in lighting the backburn and feeling overwhelmed with guilt at the destruction of homes, properties, wildlife, and landscape caused by the fire.”
“When government agencies like the RFS do not meet with communities after such traumatic events with such devastating impacts those communities lose confidence in them. This increases mistrust and can lead to the spread of unfounded conspiracy theories. Another consequence is that it leads to individuals and communities feeling isolated and unsupported and the consequence of this is increased levels of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.” says Dr Terry Kirkpatrick Psychologist with over 30 years’ experience promoting good mental health in communities impacted by disasters.
The Coronial Inquiry into the Black Summer Fires in NSW continues this week and a second round of hearings looking at systemic issues is planned for September 2022.