'We had empty dams': Councils recall fighting Black Summer fires during drought

Some landholders in northern NSW were upset the Rural Fire Service had taken water from their dams to save villages. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Some landholders in northern NSW were upset the Rural Fire Service had taken water from their dams to save villages. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Local councils have recalled fighting the Black Summer bushfires with empty tanks and dams after years of drought, during a hearing of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements on Tuesday.

Des Schroder, the director of Environment, Planning and Community with Clarence Valley Council, said the lack of water for firefighting was a major issue for the northern NSW region.

The town of Nymboida lost 90 houses in one night during a ferocious fire storm in November. Residents had no warning of the oncoming blaze because a telecommunications tower had been knocked out.

"Nobody anticipated a fire storm like that coming through," Mr Schroder said.

"The community couldn't get out, they had no warning because there's no tower, no communications tower, no SMS messaging so they all got trapped virtually up there."

The speed of the bushfire was compounded by the drought.

"We had tanks empty on all the houses so to fight a fire around a house was very difficult," Mr Schroder said.

"We had empty dams, and even the Clarence River it was the first time it stopped flowing since the turn of the century.

"So the water for firefighting was a very big problem right through."

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Trapped residents took refuge in the community hall, which thankfully still had water, Mr Schroder said.

The emergency services and council got up there to help and the Rural Fire Service flew in generators and food.

But while the aircraft bombers saved some of the villages in the area, some landholders were upset that they had taken water from their dams.

"Lots of landholders also had problems with the RFS helicopters coming in and taking water out of their dams and then they had no water left for their livestock," Mr Schroder said.

"Also some of the landholders were fairly upset that the water was coming out of their dams to fight fires in the national park and forestry estate."

Mr Schroder said authorities needed to consider building a new water storage facility in the area.

"Definitely water shortage was a major, major point of contention through the fires and basically it probably needs to be looked at," he said.

"We're going to get droughts like this again, we obviously need to be planning for it well before the fire season I think and probably the planning wasn't done, quite frankly."

This story 'We had empty dams': Councils recall fighting Black Summer fires during drought first appeared on The Canberra Times.