Union slams RFS over NSW bushfire turf war

Tom Rabe

An ongoing turf war between Fire & Rescue NSW and rural volunteers contributed to the loss of homes in the devastating Tathra bushfire on the state's far south coast, a union says.

The Fire Brigade Employees Union on Tuesday criticised Rural Fire Service management for attempting to "deflect criticism" of its handling of Sunday's devastating blaze.

The RFS waited about three hours to call for the help of FRNSW as a raging bushfire tore through Tathra on Sunday afternoon despite Fire & Rescue offering assistance more than once.

However, the RFS says the help being offered was an urban pumper that wouldn't have been able to access the hilly terrain.

"As an urban structure firefighting vehicle, the pumper is not suitable for firefighting areas off established roads and does not have the correct safety equipment to be working in a remote bushland area," an RFS spokesman said in a statement.

But the union dismissed the RFS explanation as a "cover-up".

FBEU state secretary Leighton Drury said the dysfunctional, dangerous and competitive relationship between the two organisations contributed to the loss of nearly 70 properties at the seaside town.

"The excuses coming out of RFS head office today don't stack up," Mr Drury said in a statement.

"The competition between the state's two fire services is dysfunctional and dangerous.

"In this case, it has contributed to the loss of scores of homes that may have been saved had FRNSW urban crews been in Tathra. It has to stop."

The union wants a parliamentary inquiry into the handling of the fire. It's open to the possibility of merging the state's two firefighting organisations into one.

"It makes sense, one service ... you're not looking at two head offices, you're not having these turf wars over budget," union spokesman Mick Nairn told reporters in Sydney.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Tuesday praised the work of volunteer crews but she too is open to any suggestions that could improve the state's firefighting capacity.

"I would never rule out looking at anything which improved how we respond to these natural disasters but I want to stress and thank the volunteers and the workers for saving hundreds and hundreds of homes," the premier told reporters.

"Every natural disaster causes us to reflect on what happened and what learnings we can take into the future and I expect that to happen on this occasion as well."

Tathra locals return to the blackened township on Tuesday for the first time since Sunday.

Those who lost property were taken in on grim "site inspection" buses but weren't allowed off due to concerns over downed power lines, asbestos and a still active fire front.