Scone Mountain fire – still not out of the woods

Filed in Just In by October 30, 2023

THE steady rain on Thursday night was a welcome relief to douse the fire ground, but Paul McGrath, superintendent of the Liverpool Range Rural Fire Service said, “we aren’t out of the woods.”

During the fire, the RFS team were excellent at feeding information to local media, to ensure fire updates for residents were quick and accessible, and today Paul McGrath was able to catch his breath and walk through what happened during the fire. He is also in the process of organising community meetings in Scone and Gundy to speak directly with residents. 

Here is what Paul had to say about the fire:

The initial spread and concerns

In the first four hours the fire grew to more than 500 hectares.

The fire had all the potential to go through to the Barrington, it easily could have reached Gundy and Glenbawn on Wednesday.

Grass fires move extremely quickly, in cured grass which is not too thick, it can run up to 23 kilometres and hour with some wind behind it.

It was spotting up to five kilometres in front and with 40 kilometre winds behind it, within just four hours it had a good forward rate of spread.

Fires in those conditions are hard to control and will spread rapidly.

At the peak we had more than 120 personnel on the fire ground, from Fire and Rescue, National Parks, Rural Fire Service, and numerous aircraft from around the state including the large air-tanker 737, smaller tanker which is a Hercules, choppers, smaller fixed wing, four bulldozers, and a grader.

We needed to rely on the water bombers to stop the spread of the fire to the east and north-east, because in that top part up to the tower and beyond there is no other option, because you can’t get crews in.

Current status

We still aren’t out of the woods and at the moment we have remote crews working the fire ground assisted by water bombing helicopters.

There are hot spots, particularly in trees, so we have crews opening those trees up with chainsaw work and then call in the helicopter to drop a bucket of water on it.

We’ll be continuing to patrol and working this fire until it is out and it could be another week, especially with the hot weather today and tomorrow.

There is some pretty rugged terrain to the east and we can’t get dozers up there, so it is the ground crews and helicopters we are relying on now.

There are FLIR runs – forward looking infrared – being done where we detect hot spots, work out the locations of those and enter it into the mapping, which is supplied to the ground crews.

We have crew patrolling along Barton Street and Gundy Road monitoring the southern edge and two lots of National Parks crews at the northern end, aircraft and one of our group officers is in the main control centre.

I just want us to get through the next couple of days and continue to place pressure on those containment lines.

Today Scone airport is being used to refuel choppers checking for hot spots.

I did a tour of the fire ground on Saturday and it is amazing no homes, lives or stock were lost.

Local knowledge

I was repeatedly asked if we needed more choppers in the area, but knowing how tough property owners are doing with water at the moment, instead we asked for more fixed wing aircraft to scoop water out of Glenbawn Dam. (See video of the bombers getting water from Glenbawn Dam below).

The turnaround time for the fixed wing was only about five minutes, I don’t know who those pilots were, but I’d love to shake their hands!

All private property water sources that were used have been logged by our crews and water will be replaced from all areas where it was drawn, we know farmers need that water replaced in these current conditions. The Local Land Services will be working their way through contacting everyone and replacing the water.

We knew the fire had knocked out a comms tower so we issued warnings extremely early especially for the eastern side of the fire, and issued them wider than normal to reach more people, so that for example people down the street of town and those with reception might be able to help reach friends and family in the area.

We also sent crews out to proactively inform people and had staff speaking with local media to get information out as quickly as possible and reach the people we needed to.

What also really helped in this fire is the fire mapper system we now have. It allows crews to log where they are and send images straight to the command centre so we can see in real time what they are facing and coordinate resources for them. It’s one thing to be told about the fire, it’s another to see what they are seeing.

Our crews on the ground drew a line in the sand early with where they needed the containment lines and we were in constant contact with them, it’s their show they make the recommendation and we might chat about options with them, but nine times out of ten the guys on the ground know exactly what’s needed. When you are there you have a proper feel for it and what is needed to save lives and property.

Township warning

If the wind was blowing in the opposite direction, it would have reached residential properties on the east of Scone township.

Everybody in the township needs a bushfire survival plan, because we don’t have an “BRT” for every house. 

A BRT is a Big Red Truck and we don’t have enough Big Red Trucks for every house which may have been affected, while our crews are really skilled and can use one truck to fight fires at two or three houses, resources would have been stretched.

The embers in this fire were travelling five kilometres, so it could easily have spread in the township.

It’s not the actual fire approaching, it’s the ember attack and falling trees that people need to be concerned about, that was the issue in the Canberra fires, the embers just carried for so many kilometres ahead of the fire.

The last fire we have on record there was in 1977, it burnt up into the Barrington on that occasion.

Community meetings

We are in the process of organising community meetings for residents on the interface of the fire in town and out to Segenhoe.

We want to invite them to come and talk about the fire, how we prepare and our response to it. The community can ask questions and we’ll have one in town and one probably out at the Gundy Hall, we’re just waiting to secure dates.

Local community response

The local community has been really fantastic. (Do you say that to all communities?) No, I really mean it, this community has been amazing (Paul laughed).

They’ve been hanging little shopping bags with lollies and things for our crews out in the field and one night there everyone got a late night pizza.

The Scone RSL, and look I don’t like starting to mention everyone because I’ll miss people, but lots of local vendors were helping out and community members, it was great to see and really appreciated by our crews.

The Council was really helpful too, they gave us access to their depot for fuel and had personnel doing traffic control. On the bad Wednesday, they put an emergency operation plan in place and assembled the local emergency management committee and we had some of our people in there.

Most of all our local crews and volunteers who came from across the state to help, they did an excellent job and I am very proud of them, and I am very proud to be the district manager. From last Sunday, especially on the Tuesday, they really all just went above and beyond.

Video of planes collecting water from Glenbawn Dam, kindly provided by the RFS:

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