The 2019–20 bushfire season was the worst New South Wales (NSW) has recorded. Higher than average temperatures and low moisture levels in bushfire fuels following several years of drought enabled devastating fires to burn across much of the state, with intense bushfire weather conditions continuing through most of the fire season. Over the course of a few months, 26 lives were lost, 2,448 homes were destroyed and 5.5 million hectares (ha) of land was burnt. The impact on NSW communities, farmers, local businesses, wildlife and bushland was unprecedented.
The length and intensity of the bushfire season and the scale of the fires challenged the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and other NSW agencies like never before. On 8 November for example, there were an unprecedented 17 fires for which emergency warnings – the highest alert level – had been issued. Due to the unusually dry conditions, fire behaviour was more erratic and less predictable than in previous experience, often meaning that well-tested firefighting techniques were not always as effective as in the past. Such challenges were compounded by worsening drought conditions and an unprecedented number of fire initiated thunderstorms.
From 1 July 2019 to the end of the bushfire season on 31 March 2020, there were more than 11,400 bush and grass fires across NSW. The fires burnt 6.2 per cent of the state – the largest burnt area recorded in a single fire season in eastern Australia.
Tragically, the season also resulted in the loss of several lives, including 20 civilians: three in October, five in November, four in December and eight in January. Six firefighters also died, including two RFS volunteers killed on 19 December when their fire tanker rolled down an embankment, one RFS volunteer who sustained fatal injuries in a freak weather event on 30 December, and three American citizens who were killed when their plane crashed during water-bombing operations on 23 January in the Snowy Monaro area.
Building impact assessments were conducted on 81 fires between 11 August 2019 and 1 March 2020. Assessments were completed on foot and by drone, helicopter, boat and trail bike by more than 70 RFS staff and 15 volunteers, assisted by numerous other agency personnel.
As well as burning down 2,448 homes, the fires destroyed 284 facilities and 5,469 outbuildings, and damaged 1,013 other homes, 194 facilities and 2,042 outbuildings, with the majority of property losses occurring in southern NSW. In areas assessed by the RFS, an estimated 14,519 homes, 1,486 facilities and 14,016 outbuildings were saved by firefighting protective measures.
Losses experienced by the agricultural community were also grave, with thousands of farms affected by significant losses of livestock, placing further strain on a sector already suffering wide-spread effects of drought.
More than three billion animals, more than one billion of them in NSW, were estimated to have been killed or displaced in the fires, including some rare or threatened animal, plant and insect species, with the complete loss of some species believed to be permanent.
The RFS was supported in its firefighting efforts by personnel from Fire and Rescue NSW, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Forestry Corporation of NSW, the State Emergency Service and the NSW Police Force. In addition, 5,728 interstate and overseas fire and emergency service personnel were deployed. Many other government and non-government agencies also supported the effort in many ways.
On 8 November and following multiple bushfires across eastern and south-eastern Australia, the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) declared the fires a catastrophe, enabling related insurance claims to be processed more rapidly. On 28 May 2020, the ICA advised that insurance claims from the bushfires in 2019–20 across NSW, Queensland, Victoria (VIC) and South Australia numbered 38,181, with estimated losses of $2.32 billion. NSW accounted for 81 per cent of these losses, or $1.88 billion.
A wide range of disaster assistance payments and allowances were made available through joint Commonwealth-State arrangements to assist individuals, primary producers, businesses, non-profit organisations and local governments that had been impacted by the bushfires.
Due to the ongoing and significant impact of the fires, on 6 January 2020 the Australian Government committed $2 billion to the National Bushfire Recovery Fund to provide further assistance to individuals and communities impacted by the fires, bringing total government assistance available to almost $2.65 billion.
On 20 February 2020 the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements was established.