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The NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW 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 NSW RFS has jurisdiction over 99 percent of the State land area now, but it had humble beginnings. During the 19th century, coordinated firefighting was almost nonexistent, with many landowners forced to defend their own properties. By the beginning of the 20th century, in response to particularly serious fires, the NSW State Government formalised control of fire prevention which led to the formation of the first formal brigade at Berrigan in the State's south. According to the Berrigan Advocate newspaper, the brigade was formerly 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.

1890-1912: 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 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 1867 Municipalities Act which identified the legally constituted Municipalities. Section 153 of this Act noted that: "The Council of any Municipality may from time to time make by-laws for preventing and extinguishing fires."

The 1884 Fire Brigades Act (No 3) constitutes the second mention of 'Fire Prevention and Control' in legislation. This Act determined such operations to be formally organised through State Government (NSW Fire Brigades). Twelve years later, in 1896, the first volunteer bush fire brigade was established in Berrigan and was formally recorded in November 1900. In the 1901 census the population, exclusive of Aborigines and Maoris, in NSW totalled 1,354,846.

As the new century began, two further Acts of Parliament, namely the 1901 Careless Use of Fires Act (revised 1906, 1912, 1930) and the 1906 Local Government Act were passed to ensure that brigades could be formed through local councils.

1919-1949: A focus on bush fire prevention

Local management of rural 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) was amended to become the Bush Fires Act of 1930. The Act enabled local councils to appoint bush fire officers.

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 regulations to coordinate access of fire brigades to all areas for the purposes of protecting and vacating properties was empowered under the National Security Act. This enabled local authorities to coordinate the securing and protection of premises. These regulations and the powers they facilitated were to become the Bush Fires Act 1949.

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.

Around this time the Bush Fire Fighting Fund was established. Local government could purchase equipment for their volunteer brigades from this fund.

1950-1969: 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 Two. In 1952 a specialist radio subcommittee was set up to recommend appropriate radios for use in firefighting and to allocate frequencies.

In 1958 the first Fire Prevention Association was established. The Association was concerned with developing firebreak systems and other means of preventing fires on vacant Crown Land. The Association was allocated funds under a Treasury Appropriation for the purpose of developing firebreak systems.

The first residential school for volunteer firefighters was also established in Heathcote Scout Hall 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.

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, 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 Lithgow, Woy Woy, Gosford, Narrabeen, Dee Why, Condobolin and Armidale. These fires led to the overhaul of the Bush Fires Act 1949 and the creation 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. Three lives were lost. 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. Three lives were lost. The end of the decade saw a savage fire in Roto, east of Ivanhoe which burnt 280,000ha over a three week period.

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 a 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 Council.

1975: The Bush Fire Service

In 1975 the Bush Fires Branch of the Chief Secretary's Department 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 attached to the Department of Services.

Large fires in the east and west

1975 also saw the most severe fire season for perhaps 30 years in the far west of the State with 3,755 million 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, 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 training modules were introduced in 1983, which began the formalised statewide training system a 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. The position was held by Phil Koperberg.

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 as Commissioner was to head this single Service.

The Rural Fires Act

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 NSW RFS was to be run.

2001-present day: One world-class organisation

A unified organisation

On 1 July 2001, Fire Control Officers became employees of the State 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 NSW 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

In October 2007 Shane Fitzsimmons became the second Commissioner of the NSW RFS. In April that year Phil Koperberg had resigned to begin a career in politics.

The year also boasted a remarkable number of members participating in a new online communication channel with 10,600 members registered using the MyRFS volunteer website.

The NSW RFS today

The NSW RFS is the combat agency for bush, grass and structure fires in rural fire districts. It is also the lead agency for coordination of bush firefighting and prevention throughout the State.

For the year ending June 2009, the NSW RFS recorded a membership of more than 2,065 rural fire brigades and 70,701 volunteers who were equipped, supported, trained and operational across the State out of 50 control centres. That same year the Service reported 4,000 tankers, 72 catering vehicles, 41 communications vehicles, 55 bulk water carriers and 2,000 qualified trainers delivering 314,680 local hours of training. Completed hazard reductions protected 118,021 properties and 2,773 community education programs were conducted across the State. In partnership with community and through the professionalism of its members, the NSW RFS continues to grow and to improve - while always promoting the ethos of volunteering.