On Sunday 18 March 2018, a bushfire swept into the town of Tathra (population 1,622) on the New South Wales south coast. The fire destroyed 65 homes and buildings, damaged a further 39, and destroyed 70 caravans/cabins. No deaths or significant injuries were reported.
The maximum temperature at Bega that day, 14 kilometres to the north-west, was 38.6 degrees Celsius. The maximum wind gust, recorded at 1.37pm, was 76 kilometres per hour from the north-west. Fanned by these strong winds and high temperatures, the fire burned through some 1,250 hectares of bushland. It started at Reedy Swamp and crossed the Bega River, before reaching Tathra on the coast, to the south-east, at about 3.30pm.
Although the New South Wales Rural Fire Service issued warnings, many people did not get a text alert before the fire’s arrival due to poor telephone reception. A mobile phone tower failed during the blaze, further impacting reception.
As the fire reached the town, many residents took refuge on the beach; others headed for an evacuation centre in Bega. Eventually, several hundred Tathra residents gathered at the centre, with some 300 staying overnight on the Sunday. Local Australian Red Cross volunteers helped staff at the centre. At its height, about 150 firefighters battled the blaze, saving an estimated 810 homes threatened by the fire. The fire’s spread slowed late in the afternoon with the arrival of a southerly change. The following day, four local schools were closed due to the number of students and staff affected by the fire.
Following the fire, New South Wales Family and Community Services provided a range of temporary housing support options and other support services, and the Bega Valley Shire Council established a Mayoral Appeal Fund. On 19 March, a recovery coordinator was appointed.
On 29 March, the Australian Government declared the bushfire a disaster, making disaster relief funds available for those affected. The Insurance Council of Australia declared the fire a catastrophe, ensuring claims by those affected were given priority. Insurance claims are expected to exceed $36 million.
Thirty of the homes destroyed in the fire contained asbestos. The New South Wales Government committed up to $10 million to remove asbestos-contaminated material and to help residents clean up their properties, with the clean-up coordinated by New South Wales Public Works.
On 21 March, the state government announced an independent review headed by former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty AO APM, with terms of reference to report on the adequacy of the fire services’ response to the fire, and to review the call-taking and dispatch arrangements of both Fire and Rescue New South Wales and the Rural Fire Service. At the same time, a Coronial Inquest was confirmed to formally establish the cause and origin of the fire. Keelty’s report and the government’s response – which supports all 12 of Keelty’s recommendations – were completed in June 2018.