Balmoral RFS captain says Rural Fire Service 'abandoned' village as bushfire bore down
The Rural Fire Service withdrew vital firefighting equipment from a small NSW community on a day it came under intense bushfire attack, an RFS captain has said.
Balmoral Village RFS captain Brendon O'Connor said he did not want to "point fingers", but bluntly added that his community was "abandoned" in its hour of need last month.
With the Green Wattle Creek fire ripping through bushland in the Southern Highlands, vital firefighting services were directed elsewhere, he said.
By the time the fire was bearing down on Balmoral on Saturday, December 21, he said, the local brigade was drastically understaffed and ill-equipped.
"On the Thursday and Friday we had a great number of resources, but unfortunately a decision was made on Friday evening to remove all resources from Balmoral, including bulk water, and that was replaced with a small water truck," he said.
"We were asked to remove our own trucks from the village, which I refused to do.
A small team of RFS volunteers who chose to stay and fight successfully saved much of the village, but 20 of the town's 120 houses were lost and the brigade ran out of water mid-fight.
"We were abandoned during the fight on the Saturday until much later and we've been abandoned since," Mr O'Connor said, adding that help had come but after the fact.
"We haven't seen any government agency, and it's been too hard for them to come into the village and offer assistance.
"Now we're seeing it, but that's probably due to the power of media [coverage]."
Counselling, clean-up help needed
Mr O'Connor has been asking for counselling for residents and firefighters, and help to remove hundreds of burnt trees.
As much as 90 per cent of Balmoral's trees have been burnt, bringing the new risk of falling branches for those moving around the village.
"The big thing about this is learning from it and how can we try and reduce these impacts on communities in the future," he said.
"If we can learn to do things better in the future. It's not about pointing fingers at individuals — it's about having the right resources and funding to do the work we're here for."
The RFS has been approached for a response to Mr O'Connor's comments but is yet to provide one.
Surviving in a custom-made kiln
Balmoral Village potter Steve Harrison had laboriously prepared his house to survive a fire, but it was a last resort option to shelter in a kiln that saved his life.
After switching on his pump-operated sprinkler system, he was ready to drive out of town but was met with a wall of fire on his street.
"No heat escapes from a kiln and no heat can get in — they're amazing things."
While he saved his own life, his beloved pottery building and kiln shed that he built was burnt.
He now faces the prospect of rebuilding in the latter years of his working life, cleaning up enormous trees on his property and working out complicated insurances claims.
He is also struggling with the after-effects of his traumatic experience.
Resident grateful for aid agencies during crisis
Pat Lawrence has lived in Balmoral Village for 57 years, and despite living behind the RFS brigade she evacuated with her husband to nearby Bowral during the December bushfire.
It was here the Red Cross welcomed them, processed their registration and arranged for seven nights' accommodation in a local motel, as well as providing meals at the Mittagong RSL.
In addition to feeding evacuees, the RSL has provided over 5,000 hot packaged meals that have been sent to RFS volunteers on fire grounds.
"The council organised a bus from Bowral to come and have a look [at Balmoral]," she said.
"It helped us all because we saw what we were coming back to, but driving in that day was terrible, our mouths were dropping."