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The NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) is now the world's largest volunteer firefighting organisation. The geographic area of NSW is 800,630 square kilometres, which is approximately 10.4 percent of the Australian land mass. The RFS has jurisdiction over 99 percent of the state's land area now, but it had humble beginnings. During the 19th century, coordinated firefighting was non-existent, with many landowners forced to defend their own properties. By the beginning of the 20th century, in response to particularly serious fires, the NSW Government formalised control of fire prevention which led to the creation of the first rural firefighting brigade at Berrigan in the state's south. According to the Berrigan Advocate newspaper, the brigade was formally recorded in November 1900 at a meeting at the Royal Hotel on the Murray River. It is the first official record of a formal bush fire brigade in NSW.

1858-1919: The first local bush fire brigade

Fires in New South Wales

Bush fires have always been an integral part of the NSW environment, occurring with regular frequency as a result of lightning strikes. Indigenous Australians used fire to their own advantage using fires as a tool for hunting, farming and regeneration of the environment. The character of the bush was altered when European settlers began planting crops and introducing grazing stock. In this changing landscape, planned and unplanned fires led to devastating loss of life and property.

Firefighting and legislation

The first mention of fire in legislation was in the 1858 Act for Establishing Municipal Institutions. Section 72 of this Act noted that: "The Council of any Municipality may make by-laws for the regulation of their own proceedings - the prevention and extinguishing of fires." This was closely followed by the 1866 Preventing the Careless Use of Fire Act.

The 1884 Fire Brigades Act (No 3) constitutes the next mention of 'Fire Prevention and Suppression' in legislation. This Act established the Fire Brigades Board covering the Sydney Metropolitan District and Municipalities to which the Act is extended to establish and maintain an efficient Brigade including taking over Insurance Companies Fire Brigades. Twelve years later, in 1896, the first volunteer bush fire brigade was informally created in Berrigan and was formally established and recorded in November 1900. In the 1901 census the population in NSW, exclusive of Indigenous Australians, totalled 1,354,846.

As the new century began, further Acts of Parliament, namely the 1901 Careless Use of Fires Act (revised 1906 and 1912) and the 1906 Local Government Act were passed to ensure that brigades could be formed through local shires and municipalities.

1919-1949: A focus on bush fire prevention

Local management of bush fires

As the century unfolded and the fires continued, more responsibility was put onto each local government area to manage the firefighting response.

The Local Government Act 1919 covered the use and misuse of fire and prevention of fires escaping from property boundaries and spreading out of control which enabled the local management of firefighting in rural areas. This was further enabled when the Careless Use of Fires Act (1912) and the Local Government Act 1919 were amended with the introduction of the Bush Fires Act of 1930. The Act enabled local councils to appoint an officer to control and manage any bush fire brigades. The 1932 Local Government (Bush Fires) Amendment Act further improved powers for prevention and mitigation including giving powers and authority to bush fire brigade captains and deputy captains

A central advisory body

Although efforts were underway to enable the local management of resources and firefighting response, the NSW Government saw advantages in centralising certain planning roles associated with bush fire management.

In 1937 the Bush Fire Advisory Committee was established at a conference held at the Chief Secretary's Department. It was a committee of seven key decision makers. This committee included the Chief Clerk of the Department of Works & Local Government, the Chief Officer of the Board of Fire Commissioners of NSW, and representatives of the Police Department, the Forestry Commission, the Graziers' Association, the Rangers' League, and the Education Department. Representatives from the Rural Bank of NSW, the Shires Association and the Soil Conservation Service attended later meetings. The Bush Fire Advisory Committee had no statutory powers.

The Bush Fires Act

The Second World War (1939-45) brought with it increased Federal Government wartime security regulations. In 1942 the Bush and Rural Fires Prevention Order under the National Security Act put a range of restrictions and requirements in place for the Eastern and Central Divisions of the state, excluding the Fire District, The 1946 Economic Stability and War Time Provisions Continuance Act provided the Minister with the ability, by notification in the Gazette, to prohibit the lighting of fire in the open. With the repeal of the Careless Use of Fires Act and the Bush Fires Act 1930 plus amendments to the 1919 Local Government Act, all prevention, mitigation and suppression provisions were incorporated into the 1949 Bush Fires Act. The Act also established the Eastern and Central Divisions bush fire fighting fund (contributions 25% Colonial Treasurer, 25% Councils and 50% Insurance Companies) so local government could purchase equipment for their volunteer brigades.

The first significant public display of firefighting equipment, posters, pamphlets, prevention techniques, including interviews with landholders was held at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney in 1940.

1949-1970: The growth of local brigades

Organised fire prevention

The move towards organised local firefighting got a boost with the Bush Fires Act 1949 (No 31) which gave greater powers to councils in relation to bush fire prevention, control and suppression. The Bush Fire Committee established through this Act was to provide advice, coordinate the work of the volunteer firefighting groups as well as provide community education. A report issued by the Bush Fire Committee in 1950 listed 1,378 bush fire brigades with an average membership of 20 and total personnel of over 26,000.

The bush fire brigades of NSW have gone on to become a powerful volunteer force who have dealt with the majority of significant disasters in NSW since World War II. In 1953 a specialist radio subcommittee was set up to recommend appropriate radios for use in firefighting, to allocate frequencies and train firefighters.

In 1958 nine Fire Prevention Associations were established. The Associations were concerned with fire prevention works, removal of hazards, water storage dams, improved fire detection and developing access trails on unoccupied Crown Land in coastal and tablelands regions. The Association was allocated funds under a Treasury Appropriation for the purpose of developing access trails and facilities for firefighting.

The first Bush Fire Committee residential school for volunteer firefighters was established in Heathcote Scout Camp in 1959 at an estimated cost of £250. The training lasted for one week and was conducted annually thereafter. The training was aimed at developing personal judgement rather than laying down rules of procedure. In September 1952 the first Bush Fire Bulletin was published with a circulation of 200 and in 1961 the first bush fire brigades shoulder patch depicting the burning tree surmounted by a crown was introduced. Also in 1961 Triple Zero as a national single number was introduced by Telecom for access to emergency services in major population areas, however, it was not until the mid-1980s that it was extended throughout the Australian network.

Devastating fires in the 1950s and 1960s

Midway through the century, extremely hot temperatures and winds brought difficult conditions. In the 1951-52 season, fires raged through forest north of Newcastle as well as through forests on the South Coast. In 1951, 370,000ha burnt in a single fire event in the Pilliga. At the end of the season, there were 10 fatalities and about four million hectares of land in the eastern and central zones had been burnt.

The next significant fire season occurred in 1957 where bush fires driven by gale force winds encircled Sydney and destroyed houses, shops, schools, churches and a hospital. Worst affected was the Blue Mountains area where the town of Leura was devastated.

Temperatures were above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and hundreds of firefighters were deployed. At least 600 people were left homeless. Fires also burnt out half a block in the main street of Wentworth Falls, where 25 homes were destroyed. Other fires causing severe damage that season occurred in Hornsby, Sutherland, Lithgow, Woy Woy, Gosford, Narrabeen, Dee Why, Condobolin and Armidale. These fires eventually led to the overhaul of the Bush Fires Act 1949 and the creation, in 1970, of the position of Chief Coordinator of Bush Firefighting who could operate across local government boundaries.

In the 1964-65 season fires raged in the Snowy Mountains, Southern Tablelands and outer metropolitan areas of Sydney. The Chatsbury/Bungonia fire covered 250,000ha and destroyed the village of Wingello with the loss of three lives. In March 1965, the Tumut Valley fire burnt 80,000ha. Three years later during the 1968-69 seasons, major fires in Wollongong destroyed 33 homes, five other buildings and devastated rainforest. During that same season, fires in the lower Blue Mountains were fanned by 100kph winds destroying 123 buildings with the loss of three lives. The end of the decade saw a savage fire in Roto, east of Ivanhoe, caused by lightening strikes, which burnt 283,400 ha over a three week period, with one fatality and the loss of the township's post office.

1970-1980: Severe fires

1970: The Bush Fire Council and Coordinating Committee

In 1970 amendments to the Bush Fires Act 1949 made further provisions with respect to the prevention, control and suppression of bush fires. The Act provided for the establishment of the Bush Fire Council of NSW and the appointment of a Chief Coordinator of Bush Fire Fighting.

That same year, the Bush Fires Branch was established within the Chief Secretary's Department to provide specialised administrative support to the Bush Fire Council.

In 1975 the Premier, the Hon T L Lewis, announced that the Bush Fires Branch of the Chief Secretary's Department was to be moved to Bathurst Street and integrated with the State Emergency Services (SES). It was renamed the Bush Fire Service and was responsible for providing technical and general advisory service on bush fire matters and acted as the administration arm of the Bush Fire Council. Three years later the branch was subsequently separated from the SES and moved back to the Chief Secretary's Department in Macquarie Street, Sydney..

Large fires in the east and west

1974-75 also saw the most severe fire season for perhaps 30 years in the far west of the state with 3,755,000 hectares burnt, 50,000 stock lost and 10,170km of fencing destroyed. One and a half million hectares were burnt in the Cobar Shire and 340,000ha in the Balranald Shire. At that time, the Moolah-Corinya fire was the largest fire ever to be put out by firefighters. The perimeter was over 1,000km. Three people died in the fire, 100 were hurt and 40 homes were destroyed.

In the late 1970s, the Blue Mountains endured two bad fire seasons. In late 1976, 65,000ha were burnt. The following year, one life was lost, 49 buildings were destroyed alongside of a further 54,000ha. Serious fires occurred in the Southern Highlands two years later in 1978-79. Major fires were widespread for the 1979-80 fire season burning over one million hectares in total across the state.

Comprehensive firefighter training

The 1980s began with the transfer of the Bush Fires Branch to the Office of the Minister for Police and Emergency Services. Around this time comprehensive training programs were being developed by the Service. Basic firefighter training modules were introduced in 1983, which began the formalised statewide training system that would be adopted later by other bush fire services in Australia.

1980-1997: Proclamation of the Rural Fires Act 1997

Fires in the 1980s

The early 1980s saw some of the worst bush fire seasons since the 1950s. In the 1980-81 season, eight people tragically died and over 887,000ha were scorched. The following year, a pine plantation worth $12 million was destroyed in Southern NSW. This fire was so hot that it burnt 24,000ha in just two and a half hours. Lightning strikes on Christmas Day in 1984 ignited more than 100 fires in the grassed areas in Western NSW. Half a million hectares were burnt as a result. That year 6,000 fires raged. Four people lost their lives and a total of $40 million of losses was recorded. The decade closed as it had begun, with major fires burning in the eastern part of the state.

Department of Bush Fire Services

In 1985 the Chairman of the Bush Fire Council became Executive Officer of the Bush Fires Branch. This position was held by Phil Koperberg BEM. Then in 1988 the Department of Bush Fire Services was formed, the Office of Minister for Police and Emergency Services was abolished and Bush Fire Council of NSW became an independent unit reporting direct to the Minister.

The 1993-94 fire season saw the most protracted and largest firefighting effort in Australian history with 18,300 volunteer firefighters deployed at over 800 fires throughout NSW. Four lives and 206 houses were lost. The subsequent Coronial Inquiry eventually resulted in the Government introducing legislation for a single Rural Fire Service in 1997 with a single chain of command. Phil Koperberg AO, AFSM, BEM as Commissioner was to head this single Service.

Proclamation of The Rural Fires Act 1997

The Rural Fires Act 1997 No 65 was proclaimed 1 September 1997. The Act established rural fire districts, constituted around local government boundaries, as well as the NSW Rural Fire Service to be comprised of the Commissioner, other staff and volunteer firefighters. The operating capabilities and organisational structure strengthened by the new Act, laid the groundwork to simplify how the RFS was to be run.

2001-2018: One world-class organisation

A unified organisation

On 1 July 2001, Fire Control Officers became employees of the NSW Government. Service Level Agreements were developed to allow a Council to delegate any or all of its responsibilities, as defined by the Rural Fires Act 1997, to the Commissioner of the RFS. Service-wide operating standards, procedures and a raft of associated business improvement programs were commenced under this change program.

Legislation for the environment

In the following year in August, the Rural Fires and Environmental Assessment Legislation Amendment Act 2002 amended both the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and the Rural Fires Act 1997 to provide a stronger and more streamlined system for building developments in bush fire prone areas.

Legislative amendment in 2002 followed on from the Joint Select Committee on Bushfires and the Report on the Inquiry into the 2001-2002 Bushfires. The amendments were specifically designed to strengthen the regulatory framework relating to prevention and mitigation strategies to minimise the impact of fire on the NSW community.

New Commissioner and growth of the organisation

In October 2007 Shane Fitzsimmons AFSM became the second Commissioner of the RFS. As of January that year Phil Koperberg AO, AFSM, BEM had resigned to begin a career in politics.

The 2009 Victorian fires, with 173 fatalities and in excess of 750 homes lost, became a catalyst for change and a new accountability to the community. Significant changes included the development of the bush fire survival plan and the Emergency Alert issued to fixed and mobile telephones. The first use of the Emergency Alert by the RFS was for the Walla Walla Tip Fire in the Greater Hume on 19 December 2009.

In February 2011 Rob Rogers AFSM was appointed as the first Deputy Commissioner of the RFS. Later in 2011 the “Fires Near Me” phone app was launched, which is now known as ‘Hazards Near Me’ and has been downloaded by millions of users across Australia. In 2014 the Service purchased a BK117 helicopter VH-VRP, and in October 2015 the Southern Belle DC10 arrive in NSW as part of a two-year trial of large and very large air tankers. 2017 saw the first night-time aerial operations on the Wuuluman fire burning between Mudgee and Wellington.

The three-year advertising campaign titled “I Am Fire” commenced in 2015, coordinating television, radio, print and online activity. This closely aligned with the statewide Get Ready Weekend, with more than 400 brigades taking part in community engagement activities, resulted in an increase of 12% of people who correctly assessed their level of risk. All campaign targets were exceeded and was recognised by a number of awards.

2019-present day: Black Summer and the modern RFS

2019/20 ‘Black Summer’ bush fires

The 2019/20 bush fire season was the toughest and most devastating season ever experienced in NSW, setting new records for area burnt, homes destroyed and lives lost.

The season tested the NSW RFS like no season ever before. Fire behaviour was unpredictable and more erratic than in previous seasons and complicated by worsening drought and weather conditions. Not only were individual fires larger and more intense than previously experienced, but the length and intensity of the fire season was itself unprecedented.

A key contributor to the extraordinary nature of the season was the underlying environmental conditions – 2019 was the hottest and driest year on record for Australia. Prior to the start of the season approximately 98 percent of NSW was affected by drought, and the high temperatures exacerbated the effects of drought by adding to water demand, increasing evaporation and further drying the landscape.

The extreme heat and dryness combined with low humidity and high winds to create the highest area-averaged Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) levels (a combined measure of temperature, humidity, wind speed and dryness of fuel) on record for NSW and Australia, indicating an unprecedented level of fire risk. For three consecutive months from October to December 2019, FFDI levels were at record highs.

These extreme environmental conditions led to extreme and unpredictable fire behaviour. The size, scale and concurrency of the fires, together with the amount and distance of spotting, was unparalleled. Fires ignited more easily, spread more quickly and widely, burned with increasing intensity and travelled through vegetation (such as wet-sclerophyll forests) not previously considered to be at risk of bush fire.

As a result, predicting, suppressing and managing the fires became significantly more complex, challenging and resource intensive than ever before.

From July 2019 to June 2020, there were 13,105 bush and grass fires across the state. Forty-three Section 44 declarations were made and Total Fire Bans were declared on 60 days, including ten days of statewide Total Fire Bans.

Over the course of the fire season, 5.5 million hectares of bush and grass were burnt in NSW – nearly seven percent of the state. In addition to this, 2,476 homes and more than 5,000 other buildings were destroyed. Thanks to the hard work of NSW RFS members and other firefighting agencies, 14,567 homes and more than 15,000 other buildings were saved.

New Commissioner

Following the resignation of Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons to take up a new role as Commissioner of Resilience NSW, Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers was formally appointed the new NSW RFS Commissioner in July 2020.

While the two fire seasons that followed Black Summer thankfully saw very little significant fire activity, the RFS faced new challenges in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread flooding across NSW. RFS members were instrumental in flood rescue and clean-up operations in support of the NSW SES multiple times throughout 2021 and 2022.

The RFS today

The RFS is the lead combat agency for bush fires in NSW. The Service works closely with other agencies to respond to a range of emergencies including structure fires, motor vehicle accidents and storms that occur within the rural fire districts that make up more than 95 per cent of NSW. It is also the lead agency for the coordination of bush firefighting and prevention throughout the state.

For the year ending June 2022, the RFS recorded a membership of 1,993 rural fire brigades and 72,855 volunteers across the state, as well as 1,142 staff, with approximately 68% of these staff members also serving as RFS volunteers. That same year the Service reported 4,000 firefighting appliances, 2,193 support vehicles, 47 bulk water carriers, 32 marine craft and 10 RFS-owned aircraft. In partnership with the community and through the professionalism of its members, the RFS continues to grow and to improve – while always promoting the ethos of volunteering.