Fire evacuation was 'chaotic, dangerous'

The bushfires royal commission has been told the evacuation around the Conjola area was shambolic.
The bushfires royal commission has been told the evacuation around the Conjola area was shambolic.

Terrified people jumped into a lake and fled to a beach during the shambolic and dangerous evacuation of a small NSW community during ferocious bushfires, a former emergency services chief says.

Former ACT Emergency Services Authority commissioner Peter Dunn said the evacuation of locals and about 5000 tourists, mostly young families, during the New Year's Eve fires in the Conjola area was totally unplanned.

The Lake Conjola resident described the evacuation as chaotic, shambolic and dangerous.

"We were very, very lucky that there were not a lot more injuries, indeed deaths, occasioned during that evacuation," Mr Dunn told the bushfires royal commission on Monday.

"It was a question of people literally throwing themselves into Lake Conjola."

Fishing boats and jetskis were used to ferry people from areas up lake to the beach, although sand in the mouth of the lake left many boats dangerously stranded with fires around them, Mr Dunn said.

"Everyone fled to the beach once they reached the position where they could defend no more, and were there for many hours and were literally on their own," the retired major general said.

The chaotic evacuation had a lasting impact on the mental health of both locals and tourists, Mr Dunn said.

"It was an extremely dangerous situation, extremely frightening for many, many people that had not experienced anything like this before."

Mr Dunn said the evacuation of holiday makers the day after the fire was equally disorganised, with it taking five or six hours to travel the six kilometres from Lake Conjola to the Princes Highway on a road affected by active fire, fallen trees and downed power lines.

The bushfires in the Conjola area, on the NSW south coast, killed three people and destroyed 121 homes with another 10 deemed uninhabitable.

The community was effectively isolated for eight days, prompting a team of volunteers to spring into action to drive recovery efforts that continue six months later.

Mr Dunn said there needed to be direct support for communities in a similar situation, to help the local volunteers.

He called for the development of a high readiness rapid response force that was nationally controlled and equipped, suggesting it be made up of full-time responders positioned within state or territory emergency agencies.

Former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner Greg Mullins, who like Mr Dunn is part of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action group, said longer bushfire seasons were restricting the ability of states to share firefighting resources across borders.

Noting countries like the US had well-developed national arrangements for emergency management, Mr Mullins argued for greater national co-ordination in Australia to deal with the "enemy" of climate change that was driving the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

"I've been watching the enemy for 50 years now and the enemy's geared up, you could say, like they've suddenly got nuclear weapons," he told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.

"We're still trying to deal with that with conventional forces and we need more help."

Australian Associated Press