Regional small businesses and tourism ventures in the upper Hawkesbury affected by the NSW Rural Fire Service’s backburn near Mt Wilson that got out of control, burning houses down, are calling their insurers and exploring compensation options for thousands of dollars in lost income.
“I’ve called my insurance agent to say start preparing the paperwork, even though you can’t lodge a claim until the fire is well out,” the owner and operator of Bilpin Cider, Sean Prendergast, told The Australian Financial Review on Thursday.
“The thing is that this fire was lit with the very best of intentions to reduce hazard – but it quickly got out of control and presented a whole new threat to communities around Mt Wilson that was quite separate to the existing Gosper Mountain fire, which was then still some distance away from us,” he said.
The backburn fire destroyed an estimated 20 buildings, including a home owned by the Mt Wilson fire chief, and wiped out thousands of acres of commercial land and bush.
With extreme weather conditions on Thursday, it had flared up again.
Mr Prendergast has closed Bilpin Cider due to heavy smoke haze, ongoing fire activity, road closures, and an understandable lack of customers.
“We usually do around $20,000 to $25,000 in food and beverage at the [Bilpin Cider] cellar door on a weekend at this time of year,” Mr Prendergast said. “Last weekend when the fire hit, we did $2000.”
Sixty-year-old local resident and tourism operator Lionel Buckett, of Berambing, was badly hit on December 14. He managed to save the seven upmarket treehouses that comprise his Blue Mountains Wollemi Cabins business, but virtually all of his 620 acres and a work shack were burnt.
“Except for the cabins and a pocket of rainforest that survived by some miracle, the property is scorched earth,” he said on Thursday, in between putting out spot fires.
“My place is like the Sahara desert. I cannot imagine when I’ll be able to reopen – who would want to come here now?”
Mr Buckett has had to suspend most of his 12 employees and estimates he will lose “about $40,000 a month”.
Madden Lawyers senior partner Brendan Pendergast said any successful tort action against the fire service would have to meet a high evidentiary standard. “To make an action against the firefighting agencies stick, you would have to show incidents of gross negligence,” he said.
“The difficulty with those sorts of cases is that fires are raring and out of control, and there’s no precise template for firefighting strategy.”
NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said on Monday that firefighters had been “executing some very sensible, some very risky, some very challenging decisions”.
‘Questions need to be asked’
Slater and Gordon declined to comment on possible fire-related action, citing their ongoing involvement in a class action suit against a Western Power sub-contractor, Thiess, for failing to prevent a blaze that was a part of the Parkerville bushfires in 2014.
Meanwhile, more than 440 people in Tasmania joined a class action this week against two individuals for lighting and failing to put out a campfire that, they allege, started the Dunalley blaze in 2013. The Supreme Court of Tasmania is expected to hear the case in mid-2020.
One & Only Wolgan Valley resort on the other side of Lithgow is now closed until December 23 due to “surrounding bushfire activity and subsequent smoke haze” from Gospers Mountain.
“You don’t want to knock the thousands of volunteers working for the NSW RFS around the clock to control these fires – I’m a volunteer myself – but a lot of questions need to be asked about the way that backburn was conducted, including the fact it was done during the heat of the day,” Mr Buckett said.
“For now, we are all just pulling together, but once this is over, questions need to be answered and things learned.”
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Fiona Carruthers has been the Financial Review’s Travel editor since 2018 and editor of Sophisticated Traveller since 2012. Prior to joining the Financial Review she was deputy travel editor of Traveller and has written travel for The Sunday Times, The Financial Times, The Australian, Time Magazine, and The Sunday Telegraph. Fiona has produced travel features for ABC Radio National and Deutsche Welle. Connect with Fiona on Twitter. Email Fiona at [email protected]