Rural Fire Service logs show authorities rejected offers of help twice in 20 minutes
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Rural Fire Service logs show authorities rejected offers of help twice in 20 minutes

Offshore Technology International -
A Tathra man who has been hailed as a local hero for his efforts in helping hose down fires affecting his neighbours' homes on Sunday has choked back tears recounting the chaotic scenes and the severe damage to the town.

Matt Sherlock, who has lived in Tathra for his entire life, told the Nine Network's Today it is 'devastating' to see the extent of the damage today and recounted how he jumped onto a roof to help battle spot fires that were burning up to 10 properties in the area.

'Its pretty heartbreaking actually. (It was the) first night last night with a bit of a rest and to wake up today, its pretty devastating,' he said.

'It was pretty scary there for a while. We just had to do it, we had to stop the fire going up the hill... Without stopping that fire going up the gully, we would have lost all the bottom side of Dilkera (Road).

'Another mate... was here with me as well. We ran over the other side of the hill to check on his father's house, and the two houses above were on fire, so we were just jumped on the roof and (were) hosing everything down. (I have) lots of friends here and a good mate of mine lost his family home.'

Mr Sherlock also praised the support he saw from his local community during the bushfire, saying he doesn't describe himself as a hero.

'So many people were helping out - I'm not the hero at all. The firies (sic) did what they could and the helicopters were just amazing but yeah, it's (the fire) just come in so fast and hot.'

His comments come as questions are today being asked of the Rural Fire Service officers who refused help from Fire and Rescue NSW on Sunday as the Tathra bushfire raged out of control.

Incident logs from Sunday show Fire and Rescue NSW, a state government agency, offered additional emergency brigades and assistance at 12:34pm in response to a flood of Triple Zero calls from the area, according to a Daily Telegraph report

Those offers were declined before the agency attempted to offer more crews again at 12.58pm – again being rejected.

It was only at 3.40pm that authorities from the Rural Fire Service did request extra help, issuing a priority request for all available assistance, as the fire front rapidly approached Tathra.

At 3.48pm, Fire and Rescue NSW authorities issued an emergency bushfire alert to all residents in the area, warning of immediate danger caused by the fire and urging them to seek shelter.

Mr Sherlock told Today that the speed at which the fire moved would have made it difficult for RFS officers to deal with, but also urged for more backburning to be done on a regular basis after the area around his home went unprepared for years.

'The fire was a long way out when it started. Trucks couldn't have got where the fire was - there were rivers - but when it jumped, it hit that quick,' he said.

'The bushes here haven't been burnt off for that many years (and) there was that much energy and force in it that once it started, you couldn't stop it.

'I think there should be a lot more backburning happening, which we've been fighting for and we can't get it because of the new laws - it's ridiculous.'

Currently, backburning can only occur through authorised NSW RFS crews and residents are legally not permitted to burn nearby bush around their homes to prepare for the possibility of an oncoming fire.

As a result of the catastrophic fire in Tathra, 69 houses and 30 caravans or cabins have so far been destroyed by the blaze, 39 houses have been left damaged and 398 homes saved or not affected. The town has also been declared as a disaster area.

It is believed the fire has burned through 1200 hectares of land and is not yet under control. The initial cause of the bushfire also remains unknown, however some spot fires are believed to have been sparked by power lines being dragged in strong winds.

Residents in the affected area have been treated for smoke inhalation while two firefighters battling the blaze suffered heat exhaustion and one woman was treated for minor burns.

While the fire activity eased on Monday night and the RFS downgraded its fire alert level to an 'Advice' - meaning no immediate danger - crews remain on the ground and it is still not safe for residents to return to their homes.

Hundreds of people sought shelter in the nearby Bega Showground from the effects of the fire, which was caused by a “perfect storm” that included very hot conditions, strong winds, low humidity and extremely high bushland, according to RFS authorities.

The residents of Tathra in the Bega evacuation centre will be allowed to join a number of bus trips into the town from around 10am today to see the extent of the damage, but will remain on-board as it is still unsafe to return into the area.

It is believed many of the homes affected by the area were filled with asbestos that has now been stirred up as a result of the blaze, rendering the air in the town dangerous and posing a major health risk to anyone nearby.

The town currently has no water supply and power has been restored, however mobile coverage has been reduced to just five percent of regular service after the collapse of a phone tower.

Yesterday, NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said he hoped the fire would be contained within 24 hours and acknowledged the anxious wait of many residents still unaware of the state of their homes.

'There is still a fair bit of work to do before we can call this fire contained,' he said.

“Crews are trying hard to establish strategies to bring the fire under control. Obviously the weather conditions are more favourable today - it is still warm and dry and windy, but nothing like we saw yesterday.'

'The anxiety and the stress associated with not knowing and not being able to personally see and witness what's going on is right at our forefront.'

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and local MP Andrew Constance all visited the town yesterday to assess the damage left behind by the fire, visit the evacuation centre where around 200 Tathra residents remain and comfort those affected.

'We are here to demonstrate our support, not just morally but in any which way that we can,' Ms Berejiklian said.

'I want to reiterate to them that our thoughts and prayers are with them and we will do everything we can to support them.'

Mr Turnbull also praised the outpouring of community support shown throughout the disaster and paid tribute to the 'resilience' of local residents.

'It is an amazing community and they've pulled together so much love and solidarity, everyone's pitched in,' he told the Nine Network's Today.

'We're here to provide the support, moral support, but obviously also financial support.

'The Federal government, together with the state government provides the disaster relief funding and we've authorised all of that today, so that's all flowing.'

On Sunday night, around 700 people fled Tathra, with around 400 seeking shelter in evacuation centres in Bega Showground and Bermagui, while others were offered beds from helpful residents in the local area.

Last night, dozens of people remained in those evacuation centres while some sought shelter elsewhere, including in their cars.

One local resident, known as Jani, who lost her house in the blaze and sought shelter in one of the centres along with her partner and two young daughters, recalled her harrowing story of escape to Today,.

'I grabbed the cat, I had been putting stuff in the car for 15-20 minutes and I always had a list in the back of my mind of what I'd grab,' she said.

'I just went through the house and got things of the girls' that I thought were valuable and important for them and just kept chucking them in the back of the car.

'As soon as Patrick said 'run', I grabbed the cat and that was it.'

Another Tathra resident, Peter Burgess, also told Today that the hardest part about being in the evacuation centres is not knowing exactly how bad the damage is.

'It's just the uncertainty of not knowing what's going on in there,' he said.

'(It's) whether our house is safe, whether our animals (are safe).'

Some of those who evacuated have also said they did not receive the mobile emergency alerts at all due to the lack of mobile reception during the bushfire and described the sound of the blaze ripping through properties 'like a freight train'.

'All I could hear while we drove off was glass breaking and gas bottles exploding,' resident Doug Spindler said.

'It sounded like a freight train when it hit us.'

The NSW south coast local had just doused a spot fire in his backyard on Sunday when the main firefront turned toward the family home.

Mr Spindler loaded his wife and three boys, who all have cerebral palsy, into the car along with the family cat, Patches. They took nothing else and fled the home Doug had lived in for almost 30 years.

It was a story repeated among the hundreds of locals who were forced to leave when the fire struck with little warning.

Tathra resident Janet Lewis also said that she first heard of the emergency when police drove past yelling 'evacuate!' out of a megaphone.

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