'This is no joke': Tathra bushfire coronial inquiry hears concerns over warning alert levels

The 2018 bushfire caused $63.5million worth of damage, and destroyed 56 homes and 35 outbuildings in and around Tathra. Photo: Karleen Minney
The 2018 bushfire caused $63.5million worth of damage, and destroyed 56 homes and 35 outbuildings in and around Tathra. Photo: Karleen Minney

The 10th day of the 2018 Tathra bushfire inquiry has heard the official warning level of the fire may not have matched real-time predictions, as the blaze quickly moved towards the coastline.

NSW Rural Fire Service manager of the Far South Coast team, Superintendent John Cullen told the inquiry on Friday he discussed raising the alert level of the blaze with the major incident controller in Sydney around 2pm on March 18, 2018.

Superintendent Cullen told the inquiry the possibility of the fire moving towards Tathra was discussed as early as 1.30pm, in a 15-second phone call with fire behaviour analyst David Philp, as multiple fires burned across the Bega Valley.

Superintendent Cullen said he could not explain why a situation report, released in the early afternoon, removed any mention of the fire possibly moving south to Tathra across the Bega River, despite concerns it would.

"They weren't checked carefully enough," he told the inquiry.

"I can't make an excuse for that. That's been a failing at this end."

The inquiry heard text and voice messages were sent to Tathra residents around 3.47pm, and the nearest qualified incident controller for an emergency level blaze was tasked from the Eurobodalla area by then-NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.


Superintendent Cullen told the inquiry the process of how warning alerts are set has since been improved by the NSW RFS.

Under the guidance of Deputy State Coroner Elaine Truscott, the three-week long inquiry will investigate the origin and cause of the fire, as well as the management of energy infrastructure, the management of fuel loads before the fire and the response of emergency services.

The fire burned through more than 1000 hectares of forest, causing $63.5 million worth of damage, and destroying 56 homes and 35 outbuildings in and around Tathra.

Superintendent Cullen said firefighters were "fortunate" to contain fires at Frogs Hollow, which he said may have spread to Tura Beach, and Kerrisons Lane near Bega, in time to send resources to Tathra.

Firefighter Brent Occleshaw told day 10 of the inquiry on Friday, structural changes would improve the way fires, like the March 2018 blaze, can be brought under control by firefighters.

He told the inquiry, despite "great camaraderie" and "no animosity" on the fire ground, the use of different radio channels made fighting the fire difficult.

Mr Occleshaw said "command and control" and "cultural" issues should be stamped out.

He recommended the use of common radio channels, better training in their use, as well as improved "respect for other services" through combined training.

"Anything that would improve communication would be useful, yes," he told the inquiry.


Mr Occleshaw, who during the fire was wearing three different radios, said communication issues between the NSW Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue NSW meant resources were not spread efficiently across Tathra.

"It was difficult to talk to these guys [Fire and Rescue NSW], because they were on different radio channels," he told the inquiry.

"We don't care what uniform they're wearing, it's a pool of resources."

He raised the issue of multiple crews from both agencies being stationed on either side of Tathra Public School on the day of the fire, both unaware either was there for some time.

Mr Occleshaw told the inquiry both agencies need better state government funding for crucial resources, including "more modern vehicles", location tracking data equipment in vehicles, and an effective dispatch system.

My words were, 'this is no joke'.

Firefighter Brent Occleshaw

He described it as "crystal ball firefighting", as embers fell from the sky like "cricket balls".

Mr Occleshaw said the only visual display of fire situations in Sydney, and each vehicle should be equipped with the same information.

Originally just tasked with "triangulating the fire" he told the inquiry he was quickly tasked with the role of fire control, and said he was surprised to find fire had crossed the Bega River as it headed towards Tathra.

Mr Occleshaw described "tongues of fire" moving towards Tathra, as he made the "unusual" request for a further 40 firefighting units to quickly join the five to 10 he said were already in the town.

He told the inquiry he heard a "pause" followed by "some incredulity" over the radio after he made the request.

"My words were, 'this is no joke'," he told the inquiry.

A strategy was then formed to "save as many homes as possible", Mr Occleshaw said.

There were ultimately almost 60 crews fighting the fire in Tathra, including from Moruya and Cooma, he said.

Mr Occleshaw told the inquiry, if he had known when he left Bega at 1pm the fire would impact Tathra he would've "flooded the streets" with firefighters.

He said burning bulrush plants in the Bega River had allowed the fire to burn on water, and cross to Thompson Dr.

The inquiry heard there was an almost 50 minute gap between Mr Occleshaw requesting Tathra be evacuated, and messages going out to residents advising them to leave.

He told the inquiry he arrived at Tathra after 3pm, and did his best to discover what resources were available, and told NSW Police about residents in need of help evacuating.

Mr Occleshaw said residents were unaware of what to do, or where to go, and the "patchwork fire" left some safe areas within the town.

He said, on the day, he was attempting to understand what was needed for other fires in the region, including one near Black Range that may have threatened as far south as Tura Beach.

This story 'This is no joke': bushfire coronial inquiry hears concerns over warning alert levels first appeared on Bega District News.