'No state hit harder than NSW': Fire boss responds to $51 million Celeste Barber decision

The NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner has responded to a Supreme Court decision delivering $51 million worth of donations to the organisation’s coffers.

Comedian Celeste Barber started a Facebook fundraiser in January after Australia suffered a series of catastrophic bushfires and nominated the NSW Rural Fire Service as the beneficiary of the campaign which raised $51.3 million, the largest charity drive in Facebook's history.

After far exceeding her $30,000 goal, she stated on social media the money would also be distributed to rural fire services from other states, including Victoria and South Australia, victims of the summer bushfire crisis as well as wildlife funds.

But that money will now only go to the NSW Rural Fire Service after Justice Michael Slattery ruled on Monday the trustee, in this case NSW RFS, can’t pay the money to other charities or fire services.

NSW RFS Commissioner Rob Rodgers told Network Ten’s The Project on Monday the money would go towards equipment to fight fires, including $20 million to volunteer firefighter stations.

The trustees of the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Fund sought advice from the NSW Supreme Court as to the proper interpretation of its April 2012 trust deed.

When asked why NSW RFS went to court, Comm Rodgers said the service wanted to know what the money could actually be used for as it was “obviously” the wish of Barber to have it widely distributed.

Celeste Barber raised more than $51 million for the NSW Rural Fire Service during the bushfires. Source: David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

“The last thing we want to do is alienate a portion of the population that gave so generously,” he told the program.

The Project host Waleed Aly asked what the commissioner thought if the state government hypothetically reduced funding next year due to the charity windfall and gave it to other fire-affected communities in Australia.

“To be quite honest, I don't think there's any state that has been hit harder than NSW in this last fire season,” he said. 

“NSW was hit from August through to February. We had the most losses of life, losses of property. So I don't think there's any state that has done it tougher than NSW, Waleed.”

‘There are no villains here’

After the interview with Comm Rodgers, The Project panellist Steve Price said this court ruling raised a number of questions.

“It’s great the money is there, but I can see some real problems. How for a start do they work out which... RFS unit in NSW gets the money, do they divide it up evenly?” he said.

“And then you’re going to have interstate rivalries... it’s going to cause as many problems as it solves by the sounds of it.”

Carrie Bickmore then read out a viewer’s suggestion that NSW buy water bombers and then loan them to other states.

Aly pointed out it didn’t sound like the NSW RFS Commissioner wanted to do that, but he understood the fire chief’s stance.

Firies spend New Year's Eve battling an inferno in the wind at Nowra on the south coast. Source: Getty Images

“They might do that but... if you’re running the New South Wales RFS, I can see you would say, ‘I got to do everything I can.’”

Aly then turned to his co-host, Peter Helliar, and asked what he thought about the possibility of the NSW government reducing the RFS’s funding and giving it to other states.

“I can’t imagine them doing that,” Helliar said.

“There are no villains in this. People are getting up in arms and I know it’s frustrating, some people thought the money might have been spread out, but Celeste did an amazing job raising this money, everyone who donated did and the RFS are an amazing group of people.”

What the judge ruled

Justice Slattery said while some donors may have intended or hoped the money they donated would be used for purposes beyond those which the court has advised “are permissible”.

"Despite the trustees' wish to honour those intentions or hopes, the law provides principles that ensure a degree of certainty in the application of trust funds... and the court has applied these principles,” he said.

He said public and private statements by Barber or the donors didn't bind the trustees and the funds "must be applied only for the purposes set out in the RFS Trust Deed".

The judge said the trustees can, however, set up or contribute to a fund to support rural firefighters injured while firefighting or the families of firies who died.

Such a fund would encourage people to volunteer to contribute to preventing and fighting fires and was permissible under the deed, he found.

The trustees can also use the money to provide physical and mental health training, as well as trauma counselling services, to individual NSW RFS firefighters.

They can set up or contribute to a fund to meet the costs for volunteer rural firefighters to undertake courses to improve their skills.

Justice Slattery ordered the parties' legal costs be paid out of the RFS fund.

‘You are rock stars’

Barber on Monday said she'd hoped the money could be distributed to other states and charities because "it was such a big and unprecedented amount".

"Turns out that studying acting at university does not make me a lawmaker," she said in a statement.

"So the money will be in the very capable, very grateful hands of the NSW RFS. To our volunteer firefighters you are rock stars like no others."

with AAP

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