Bushfire royal commission: what happened when the bushfires hit Lake Conjola

Homes, property and lives were lost in the fires which tore through Lake Conjola this summer. Picture: Karleen Minney
Homes, property and lives were lost in the fires which tore through Lake Conjola this summer. Picture: Karleen Minney

A former ACT Emergency Services commissioner has told of the chaos as thousands of tourists were evacuated from Lake Conjola as fires bore down on the South Coast hamlet with little warning.

Three people died and more than 130 homes were destroyed or damaged extensively when the Currowan fire hit Lake Conjola on New Years' Eve.

Major General Peter Dunn, a former commissioner of the ACT Emergency Services Authority and a member of the Conjola Community Recovery Association, told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements it was a miracle there were not more injuries and deaths during the frantic, unplanned evacuation.

People in the area had little or no warning that the fire, which had been burning for weeks at that point, would spread east across the Pacific Highway into the Conjola area, Major General Dunn said.

Coordinator of the Conjola Community Recovery Association Peter Dunn. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Coordinator of the Conjola Community Recovery Association Peter Dunn. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

"The preparations for the evacuation were essentially non-existent," Major General Dunn said on Monday.

"It was a question of people literally throwing themselves into Lake Conjola.

Major General Dunn recalled some "quick-thinking" people organised power boats and jet skis to go to Conjola Park and ferry people down to the beach.

However they had trouble doing so because of the shoaling in the river.

"The lake mouth has been a contentious issue and it is not navigable at the moment down to the beach," he said.

Once people made it to the beach, they were left there" for many hours and were literally on their own", Major General Dunn said.

There were around 5000 tourists and campers in the area, the majority of which were young families.

"They were terrified. The temperatures were high, the smoke was intense, the noise was intense and, of course, whilst everyone was trying to evacuate down through the lake, helicopter water bombers were trying to fill their buckets in that same lake," Major General Dunn said.

"It was an extremely dangerous situation, extremely frightening for many, many people that had not experienced anything like this before, and one that will - or has affected, I know from talking to these people, affected many tourists' mental health, let alone the people that actually lived in the Conjola area.

"The evacuation was totally unplanned and it was chaotic and what I can say is that we were very, very lucky that there were not a lot more injuries, indeed deaths occasioned during that evacuation."

Major General Dunn said the designated "safer" place - the Lake Conjola Community Centre - had not been prepared for the fires.

"And indeed, the surrounds caught fire during the fire storms that struck the whole area, and that had to be saved. Fortunately it was, and it was certainly not used as a safer place," Major General Dunn said.

The community was isolated for eight days at the height of the crisis.

Telecommunications towers were knocked out and the only connection to the outside world was the ABC emergency broadcasts and local radio station 2ST.

"After one or two days, when you are listening and can't respond to the radio broadcasts, it starts to become quite unnerving," Major General Dunn said.

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An NBN muster truck turned up unexpectedly and helped install a satellite at the community centre to provide public and internal WiFi.

"This became an absolute lifesaver," Major General Dunn said.

Six months on, Major General Dunn said the Conjola Community Recovery Association was still looking after some of the families who'd lost their homes.

However the volunteers themselves "suffered a degree of trauma" during the disaster too, he said.

"The community came together very, very quickly, but, of course, this work has now extended to the six-month period and shows no sign of abating.

"What's needed is really good support to come in behind the volunteers to support them and then to take over when it is suitable to do so."

Major General Dunn said agencies like Resilience NSW should work to support community-led volunteers in future disasters.

"We are seeing such large-scale events that communities now are key to both the preparation, some of the response and the recovery. And those communities need now to be directly supported," Major General Dunn said.

"That's a fact of climate change. They were extreme events, large-scale in terms of area, and we need some form of, I believe, nationally designed [support] and then delivered through the states, probably, and territories, support by way of full-time personnel."

This story 'The preparations were non-existent': what happened when the bushfires hit Lake Conjola first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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