This week marks thirty years since what has become known as the 1994 Eastern Seaboard Fires. At the time these were the most ferocious fires NSW had seen in approximately 20 years.
Please note that the terminology used in this brief recap of the 1994 bushfire emergency is reflective of the vernacular used at the time of the incident. In some places modern language has been adapted, however for the most part the terms use reflects what was colloquial in 1994.
Between 3-14 January 1994, the NSW Fire Brigades, NSWFB (today Fire and Rescue NSW, FRNSW) were called to action against the threat of bushfires in the greater Sydney area, Newcastle and along the central coast (some fires had begun as early as Boxing Day 1993; however, it is the period between 3-14 January that is considered to have been the main fire emergency).
These bushfires would go on to claim approximately 600,000 Hectares of bushland, around 200 houses, and the lives of 4 people. These fires are remembered as the worst bushfires Australia had seen in years. By the end of the fire emergency the NSWFB had committed 111 appliances to firefighting efforts.
The horrific bushfire period began with a total fire ban implemented on 3 January in various regions including the metropolitan area. Weather conditions deteriorated throughout the day which escalated fires already burning in the Spencer/Gunderman (north of Sydney) and Newcastle areas.
By the 5 January the NSWFB had assembled rapid strike forces in Sydney ready for immediate deployment. On the same day two of the response teams were sent to the fire front at Spencer while a further three were sent to Kariong to await further instruction as the fires in the Lake Macquarie area (south of Newcastle) began to escalate and the threat was increased. The following day, 6 January, one of these teams was responded to Lake Macquarie.
On 6 January, the number of task force groups was increased as the fire conditions continued to deteriorate. These groups were actively involved in the back-burning operations and evacuation of properties along Wisemans Ferry Road and additional resources were re-deployed to assist with the mounting property losses in the Mount White and Kariong areas.
Also on 6 January, appliances were responded to calls for assistance from the National Parks & Wildlife Services (NPWS) to battle blazes in Lane Cove National Park, South Turramurra and North Epping.
Due to previous fires in the Lane Cove National Park, just one month earlier, a pre-planned strategy was in place should fire occur once again within the vicinity of the park. Thus, when the call for assistance came on the 6 January, 16 NSWFB appliances were quickly responded, along with support from an ACT task force. Despite the efforts of firefighters, the fire raged over several days and consumed almost 80% of the park.
Further, by 12pm on 6 January a fire in the Royal National Park isolated the township of Bundeena with 3,100 people needing to be evacuated by boat.
On 7 January District Officer Greg Mullins responded to a call at Macquarie Park, in Sydney’s north-west where the fire was observed to be rapidly spreading with spot fires witnessed up to 300m ahead of the fire front. When crews arrived at the scene several homes were already alight with dangerous conditions for crews making battling the fire even harder. Power lines had fallen and in some instances the water supply failed. Working with local bushfire crews, backburning occurred overnight in North Ryde to slow the spread of the blaze.
By Saturday 8 January, the Spencer/ Gunderman fires were considered to have downgraded enough to allow local resources and the Department of Bushfire Services to manage the ongoing situation. This allowed the remaining NSWFB task force to be re-deployed to Mount White and Somersby (north of Gosford) where the situation was worsening.
Back in the Macquarie Park area on 8 January another fire began to spread in a southeast direction, driven by strong winds. Helicopters were deployed here to assist, however it continued to spread and quickly developed into an inferno. District officer Smith directed appliances from one of the many task forces now deployed in Sydney, to Chatswood West in an effort to lessen further property damage. The fire proceeded down toward Lane Cove River and residents of Avian Crescent were quickly evacuated. The fire reached this point only 15 minuets after evacuations were complete. Firefighters fought back the flames along Avian crescent and by the time the flames subsided, no property or lives had been lost and the fire was successfully stopped from spready any further. Overall, 26 appliances, two water tankers and 108 personnel worked together with interstate task force groups and bushfire units to fight the fires in the north-west of Sydney.
Similar efforts to control fires were also taking place in the Blue Mountains as a wildfire was heading into the Grose Valley, causing more than 16,000 to be on standby to evacuate. When the fire reached the valley, it became inaccessible to firefighters so overnight command monitored the spread of the fire and prepared a response for when it would re-emerge from the valley in the morning.
It was in the morning that the fire began approaching the Winmalee and Hawkesbury Heights areas. The property damage from this fire was substantial, however the strategies put in place the previous night averted what could have been substantially higher losses.
The fire continued to spread through the Hawkesbury region which was only kept at bay by 12 pumpers and 4 water tanks. During initial firefighting operations, two firefighters suffered minor burns to the face and were treated by ambulance personnel on site.
By 9 January the NSWFB committed eight additional pumpers to assist with protecting the Yellow Rock area (lower Blue Mountains just north of Penrith), establishing a black line between Columbus College and Linden and to assist with mopping up current fires and re-deployment of exhausted resources.
By Wednesday the 12 January, many of the fires that firefighters had been in constant battle with, were beginning to be considered under control or remained inactive after earlier being extinguished. Back-burning had been completed in most areas such as Gosford and the Blue Mountains which slowed the fire fronts. A task force remained present in the Como/Jannali area and spot fires were being contained in St Ives. The Royal National Park continued to burn as an area of about 80 hectares remained uncontained until aerial water bombing successfully contained this fire, putting an end to the worst of the blaze.
As the most serious elements of the fire threat came to an end, by 15 January, the regions with the highest property losses were assessed to be the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park Area and surrounds with 42 homes lost; the Lane Cove National Park area where 13 homes were destroyed, while 9 (including a youth hostel) were lost in the Hawkesbury Heights/Blue Mountains region.
Four people lost their lives in the bushfires, including three firefighters and one civilian who was seeking shelter in her swimming pool.
The 1994 bushfires caused great devastation to the wider Sydney and Newcastle areas. This is just a very short summary of how the emergency progressed as we try to pay tribute to what at the time was an un-precedent event. In the aftermath of the tragedy great learnings were taken away and as a result firefighters are more prepared to manage bushfire emergencies. As a result of the fires a coronial inquiry was held which led to the re-development of the Bushfire Brigade, which became the Rural Fire Service (RFS) and within the NSWFB the establishment of Community Fire Unit’s (CFU) was initiated.
The Museum will be sharing a lot more on the creation of CFU later in the year so keep an eye out for that!