19 September 2023

Far South Coast school closures down to 'pre-agreed thresholds' as region braces for a dry summer

| Claire Sams
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Burnt trees Clyde Mountain

The scars of last the Black Summer bushfires are still clear to see on Clyde Mountain. Photo: Kim Treasure.

The closure of schools across the Far South Coast has raised questions about the impact of government bushfire risk policy in the face of forecasts for a long hot summer, but the department is standing firm in its decision.

NSW Department of Education Secretary Murat Dizdar defended the NSW Department of Education’s decision to temporarily close over 20 Far South Coast schools on Tuesday (19 September).

“We work closely with the NSW Rural Fire Service and the State Emergency Operations Centre,” he said.

“When the fire danger rating exceeds pre-agreed thresholds developed in consultation with the NSW RFS, we direct schools to temporarily close.”

A man in a blue suit and tie, with a white shirt looking at the camera

Murat Dizdar said the decision to temporarily close schools was more than an overcautious measure. Photo: NSW Government.

A total fire ban was issued on Tuesday for the Far South Coast and Greater Sydney, as well as an initial fire danger rating of ‘extreme’ for the Far South Coast.

This was later raised to ‘catastrophic’ on Tuesday afternoon due to stronger-than-forecast winds.

A NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) spokesperson said the decision to close schools is made by the NSW Department of Education.

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The NSW Department of Education completed a review of school bushfire ratings in 2022 following the Black Summer fires of 2019/20. The review coincided with and aligned with the introduction of the new Australian Fire Danger Rating System.

In a statement, the department said the updated risk ratings for schools were designed to accurately reflect the risk profile of the school to bush and grass fires, taking into consideration landscape-scale factors such as distance to vegetation, bushfire behaviour and the impact of catastrophic bushfire behaviour, as well as situational factors such as access/egress, isolation from emergency services and evacuation.

The department said it worked with RFS NSW and other subject matter experts who undertook the school risk assessments to establish thresholds for proactively closing schools based on the District Fire Behaviour Index being greater than 75.

The Fire Behaviour Index is a scale of potential fire behaviour ranging from 0 to 100-plus, with 50 to 99 being ‘extreme’.

According to the department, the Far South Coast District had a Fire Behaviour Index of 82 on Tuesday.

Fire ratings and weather forecasts are issued by the NSW RFS at 4 pm each day. Schools at risk are notified following the afternoon declaration.

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In response to the announcements of closures by local schools on Monday evening (18 September), some parents criticised the decision and the late notice, while others were concerned that children who had lived through the Black Summer fires were being unnecessarily re-traumatised or thought the department was being too cautious.

Mr Dizdar said that the department had to consider several factors.

“We do not make decisions to temporarily close our schools lightly,” he said.

“It is always done with the safety and wellbeing of our staff and students uppermost in our mind.

“For many of our staff and students, the memories and trauma of the 2019-2020 bushfires remain.

“We want to minimise any impact on them by taking proactive action to ensure they know their safety is our priority.”

Should a school close due to bushfire risk, Mr Dizdar said classes would continue and students would be given learning from home resources.

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