Brutal bushfires two years ago tested the mettle of the Riverina Highlands Rural Fire Service (RFS) team but just months ago the staff were rendered homeless when their trusty ship – the Riverina Highlands Building in Capper Street, Tumut – went under thanks to a burst water pipe.
Well used to emergency situations, the team took just three days to find temporary digs, hanging their shingle outside the Tumut SES headquarters in readiness for the bushfire season.
In mid-December, they were thrown a lifebuoy of epic proportions when it was announced a new fit-for-purpose $8 million RFS Fire Control Centre was to be built near the town.
Better still – they got a firefighting helicopter as well.
A thrilled district manager Jon Gregory says it’s great news, taking them from an office block that had been adapted to accommodate the RFS.
“We’ve had a bit of a history in the Riverina Highlands of large campaign fires and the current fire control centre has got to a point where it is not fit-for-purpose,” he explained.
“It’s in an area at the back of Coles and we ended up, during 2019-20, staging strike teams out of the car park, where we were competing with shoppers. We didn’t have a secure area to store our logistics stuff and ended up having people pinching drink bottles and sandwiches – we ended up having to put a security guard on.
“At the height of the Dunns Road fire in 2020, we had 95 people working out of the fire control centre in Capper Street.
“The new fire control centre will be so much better, it offers more room and the latest state-of-the-art equipment.”
When complete, the new fire control facility will incorporate an operations centre, administration area and training facilities, providing the NSW RFS and its emergency services partners with the modern facilities they need to successfully manage large-scale emergency response operations.
There is also the potential for other agencies to be co-located on the site.
Along with that is a new aviation hangar, with both buildings to be located near the Tumut airport in a deal struck with Snowy Valleys Council, who are providing a parcel of land.
Mr Gregory said the RFS already had an airbase at Tumut aerodrome.
“This will consolidate all our facilities in one place and there’ll be two RFS Bell 412 rescue helicopters the RFS has on its fleet located at the airbase when required with the ability to head across to other areas when it’s needed,” he said.
“Rather than having them centrally located in Sydney, they’re putting them in various parts of NSW.”
The airport itself is about to undergo a $12.5 million overhaul – thanks to state and federal government funding – which will see its runways and taxiways lengthened and strengthened.
According to Mr Gregory, this means it can accommodate the larger and heavier aircraft used by both the RFS and the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
“This was identified during Black Summer that the pavement wasn’t strong enough and the airstrip was not long enough, so the bombers operating there couldn’t be fully loaded … the new upgrade to the airport will mean RFS water tankers can be filled to full capacity upon take-off,” he said.
The lighting system is also set to be upgraded, allowing aircraft to take off and land at night or in poor conditions.
The region’s 28 brigades are called up from Gocup in the north to Bringenbrong in the south near Khancoban, plus a cadet brigade to help bolster ranks in territory that is bushy, rugged and remote.
“This is just long overdue and it’s going to be fantastic for the community and the area,” Mr Gregory said.