More than 100 years ago, the residents of a small town call Berrigan in south west New South Wales, banded together as firefighters to protect their community against the ever-present threat of bush fires. They were Australia's first official bush fire brigade.
Prior to 1997, bushfire fighting services in New South Wales were essentially a patchwork of more than 200 separate fire-fighting agencies working under a loose umbrella with no single chain of command. The core of the service, then as now, was the volunteer brigades that were organised along council district lines under the command of a locally-appointed Fire Control Officer. Fire fighting efforts were funded by the Bush Fire Fighting Fund, established in 1949 and financed by insurance companies, local council and the State Government. A variety of State-run committees and councils oversaw bushfire operations with members drawn from various Government fire fighting agencies and council and volunteer representatives. These groups developed legislation and techniques but in the main responsibility for bushfire management was vested in individual local councils in dedicated bushfire areas as determined under the 1909 Fire Brigades Act. This Act proclaimed the areas serviced by the Board of Fire Commissioners (now the New South Wales Fire Brigades) and covered the urban areas of Sydney and Newcastle together with most regional and country towns of any significance.
In January 1994, extreme weather conditions resulted in over 800 bushfires breaking out along the coast of NSW. More than 800,000 hectares of land and 205 homes were burned. 120 people were injured and 4 people were killed, including 3 volunteer firefighters from the Wingello Bush Fire Brigade. The financial cost of the disaster was estimated at $165 million. The lengthy Coronial Inquiry that followed recommended the State Government introduce a single entity responsible for the management of bush fires in NSW. The 1997 Rural Fires Act was proclaimed on 1 September, with Phil Koperberg announced as Commissioner. As Director-General of the Department of Bush Fire Services, Koperberg had been in command of the fire agencies battling the 1994 fires and was instrumental in developing the legislation that led to the Rural Fires Act.
Volunteer brigades, 1896 - 1936
RFS memorial in Berrigan commemorating the establishment of the first bush fire brigade in New South Wales.
Organised control of bushfires began with the establishment of the first volunteer bushfire brigades at Berrigan in 1896. This brigade had been established in response to a series of large fires in northern Victoria and south western New South Wales in the 1890s. These culminated in the Red Tuesday fire of 1 February, 1898 in Gippsland that claimed 12 lives and destroyed 2000 buildings.
In 1919 the Local Government Act provided for the prevention and mitigation of bushfires by authorising local councils to establish, manage and maintain these brigades. The establishment of the Bush Fires Act in 1930 granted local councils the authority to appoint bushfire officers with powers comparable to those held by a Chief Officer of the NSW Fire Brigades. These Fire Control Officers were responsible for bushfire management within their appointed local council districts.
Bush Fire Advisory Committee, 1937 - 1948
In September 1937 a conference of fire-fighting authorities was convened to discuss the prevention of bushfires during the summer months. The Bush Fire Advisory Committee was established to prevent and mitigate bush fires. This committee had no statutory powers but publicised the need for the public to observe fire safety precautions and highlighted the role of Bush Fire Brigades. It was also largely responsible for preparing legislation that led to the Bush Fires Act of 1949.
Bush Fire Committee, 1949 - 1970
The Bush Fires Act, 1949 came into effect on 9 December 1949. This legislation consolidated and modernised the law relating to the prevention, control and suppression of bush fires, and gave councils and other authorities wider powers to protect the areas under their control. The system of bushfire brigades manned by volunteers and directed by their officers appointed by their local Councils continued but shire and district councils or Ministers could now appoint group captains to direct brigades formed by two adjoining councils.
The Act also gave the Governor of NSW the authority to proclaim bush fire districts where none had previously been proclaimed. Essential to the legislation was the establishment of the Bush Fire Fighting Fund. This Fund was financed by insurance companies contributing half the funds with the remainder supplied equally by State and local government. The Act also enabled for the co-ordination of the activities of the Board of Fire Commissioners, the Forestry Commission (now State Forests) and the Bush Fire Brigades. The Minister for Local Government was empowered to appoint a person to take charge of all bush fire operations during a state of emergency.
The Bush Fire Committee replaced the Bush Fire Advisory Committee and had 20 members representing NSW Government departments, local government, the insurance industry, the farming community, the Board of Fire Commissioners, and the Commonwealth Meteorological Bureau. A Standing Committee composed of a chairman and five others met at least once a month. Based in Sydney, the Bush Fire Committee advised the Chief Secretary and Minister for Local Government on all matters relating to bush fires, and generally coordinated the work of volunteer fire fighting groups and was responsible for community education relating to bushfires.
Bush Fire Council/Bush Fire Service, 1970–1997
In 1970 the Bush Fire Committee was replaced by the Bush Fire Council, with members drawn from the various fire fighting authorities from around the state. A special Co-ordinating Committee was established to oversee the co-ordination of fire-fighting and related resources prior to and during the bush fire season, and particularly during bush fire emergencies. A Chief Co-ordinator of Bush Fire Fighting was also appointed.
In January 1975, the Bush Fires Branch of the NSW Chief Secretary's department integrated with the State Emergency Service and renamed the Bush Fire Service.
The Department of Bush Fire Services was established in 1990. Phil Koperberg was appointed Director-General of the Department on 11 May. The Department's main role was in co-ordinating the fire fighting activities of other government agencies such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service, State Forests of New South Wales, Sydney Water and the New South Wales Fire Brigades in emergency circumstances. It was also responsible for the management and control of the NSW Bush Fire Fighting Fund and the co-ordination of the State's 2,500 Bush Fire Brigades, however the brigades still remained under the direct control of local council.
NSW Rural Fire Service, 1997–present
The Rural Fire Service Headquarters is situated on Carter Street, Lidcombe.
The NSW Rural Fire Service was established by the Rural Fires Act 1997 which was assented to on 10 July 1997 and came into force on 1 September 1997. The Rural Fires Act repealed the Bush Fires Act, 1949 thereby dissolving the Bush Fire Council and its Committees. Members of these bodies ceased to hold office but were entitled to hold office on a replacing body.
The Rural Fire Service Advisory Council of New South Wales was established. The Council was to consist of nine representatives with a direct or indirect association with bush fire prevention and control; the Commissioner in charge of bush fire fighting services was ex-officio to be the Chairperson of the Council. The task of the Council was to advise and report to the Minister and Commissioner on any matter relating to the administration of rural fire services, and to advise the Commissioner on public education programs relating to rural fire matters, training of rural fire fighters, and on the issue of Service Standards.
A statutory body – the Bush Fire Co-ordinating Committee - also was established. This was to consist of 12 members including the Commissioner who was to act as Chairperson. The Committee was to be responsible for the administration of rural fires management as well as advising the Commissioner on bush fire prevention.
The Committee was to constitute a Bush Fire Management Committee for "the whole of the area of any local authority for which a rural fire district is constituted". Each Management Committee was to prepare and present to the Council a plan of operations and bush fire risk management plan for its area within three months of establishment. The former was to be reviewed every two years; the latter every five years.
Section 102 of the new act established the New South Wales Rural Fire Fighting Fund to replace the New South Wales Bush Fire Fighting Fund. Quarterly contributions from insurance companies, local councils and the Treasury were to continue in the same proportions as under previous legislation - 14 % from the State Treasury, 73.7% from the insurance industry and 12.3% from local Councils