Eastern seaboard bushfires 1994

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Eastern seaboard bushfires 1994

The bushfire season of 1994 was one of the worst in the history of New South Wales. Eight hundred blazes torched over 800,000 hectares of bushland from Batemans Bay to the Queensland border, with mass evacuations occurring in populated areas up and down the state.[1] Three volunteer firefighters; Robert Page, Norman Anthes and Clinton Westwood, plus one civilian, lost their lives during the bushfires. Westwood was only seventeen when he died in a tanker crash on 29 January 1994.[2]

During the 1980s and 1990s, bushfires had become more frequent and dangerous; however, nothing had prepared the firefighters of New South Wales for the wall of flame that engulfed the state in December 1993.[3] Searing heat and strong winds saw fire fronts tear through the state in the new year, with 225 homes lost and the train line to Newcastle cut off by flames.[4] Suburbs as close to central Sydney as Turramurra, Killara and Pymble were affected, with fierce fires burning in the Lane Cove, Ku-ring-gai Chase and Royal National Parks and southern suburbs Menai, Como West and Jannali. In Bonnet Bay, a 42-year-old woman died after seeking shelter in a swimming pool, with two children found with her treated for serious burns.

Twenty thousand firefighters were called out to assist with the bushfire effort, alongside interstate fire teams and the Australian Defence Force. At the time, bushfire administration in the state was undertaken by separate bodies, the Department of Bush Fire Services and local councils. This led to some confusion between organisations during the bushfire crisis.

Legal investigations into the causes of fires in New South Wales are under the jurisdiction of the coroner. A coronial inquiry was launched at the Glebe Coroner’s Court in August 1994, with an inquest into the four fatalities conducted at the same time. Over the course of the two-year inquiry, Senior Deputy State Coroner John Hiatt made 125 findings and recommendations.[5]

The most influential of Hiatt’s recommendations was the amalgamation of all firefighting services in the state into a single Rural Fire Service (RFS) with a simplified chain of command. Other recommendations included revisions of building codes in fire-prone areas and the improvement of technology for communications during fires.[6] The Rural Fires Act 1997 formally established the modern NSW Rural Fire Service, that was divided into teams attending rural fire districts based on local government boundaries.[7] The RFS has played a pivotal role in firefighting over the following decades.

 

Notes

[1] Shane Fitzsimmons, 2014. ‘Twenty years on since the 1994 fires’. NSW Rural Fire Service, accessed 23 November 2020 https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/about-us/our-districts/mia/photovideo-gallery/2014-photovideo-gallery/twenty-years-on-since-the-1994-fires-seven-news-flashback>

[2] Shane Fitzsimmons, 2014. ‘Twenty years on since the 1994 fires’. NSW Rural Fire Service, accessed 23 November 2020 https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/about-us/our-districts/mia/photovideo-gallery/2014-photovideo-gallery/twenty-years-on-since-the-1994-fires-seven-news-flashback

[3] NSW Rural Fire Service, 2020. ‘Our history’, accessed 23 November 2020 http://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/about-us/history

[4] Shane Fitzsimmons, 2014. ‘Twenty years on since the 1994 fires’. NSW Rural Fire Service, accessed 23 November 2020 https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/about-us/our-districts/mia/photovideo-gallery/2014-photovideo-gallery/twenty-years-on-since-the-1994-fires-seven-news-flashback

[5] Senior Deputy Coroner John Hiatt, 1996. New South Wales Bushfire Inquiry (Westmead: Coroners Court) 397–402

[6] Senior Deputy Coroner John Hiatt, 1996. New South Wales Bushfire Inquiry (Westmead: Coroners Court) 397–402

[7] NSW Rural Fire Service, 2020. ‘Our history’, accessed 23 November 2020 http://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/about-us/history