BUSHFIRE investigation in NSW is failing the community with a significant group of fire-lighters - "reckless" landowners allowing fires to run into bush or national parks before the start of each fire season - slipping through the net, one of the state's most experienced bushfire investigators has told the NSW Independent Bushfire Inquiry.
Hunter man Rick Miller, a volunteer who resigned from the Rural Fire Service in March, 2019 over resourcing of fire investigators, has told the inquiry existing methods of identifying serial fire lighters - including landowners doing hazard reduction - are not working efficiently because of "lack of commitment" by the RFS and other fire agencies.
"From my experience many of the 47 per cent of fires that are classed as accidental are in fact reckless or, if they were properly investigated, would be determined as deliberate," Mr Miller said in a submission to the inquiry which will investigate the 2019/20 fire season and report to the NSW Government before the next fire season.
"Each year landowners, especially in places such as the Clarence Valley, light up without constructing proper control lines, and let fires escape their properties. This is actually a criminal offence but little is effectively being done to stop it," Mr Miller told the inquiry.
An RFS report shows about 45 per cent of the 500 bushfires in the Clarence Valley each year are considered major fires, with the main causes being arson, "indiscriminate and irresponsible" burning off practices, lightning strikes and illegal burn-offs.
While the RFS and NSW Police routinely warn landowners about the risk of prosecution for unauthorised and illegal uncontained hazard reduction burns before fire seasons start, efficient fire investigation would identify property owners with a history of problems and take action, Mr Miller said.
The issue is more pressing after the catastrophic 2019/20 bushfire season and predictions of increasingly more severe fire seasons because of global warming, Mr Miller said.
"Climate predictions forecast many more periods of extreme drought and it is likely that the 40 per cent of fires that are deliberately lit will in future have a greater impact on lives, property and the environment."
Mr Miller told the inquiry, headed by former NSW Police deputy commissioner Dave Owens and Independent Planning Commission chair and former NSW chief scientist Professor Mary O'Kane, that the current system of bushfire investigation relied on volunteers who lacked resources.
Mr Miller examined more than 900 fire scenes for the RFS and the NSW Police property crime arson squad and helped identify more than 16 serial arsonists in the Hunter/Central Coast, including RFS volunteers.
He provided key evidence that convicted RFS volunteer Alex Noble, who was sentenced to eight years' jail for lighting multiple fires in 2012 and 2013, that culminated in the devastating Catherine Hill Bay fires that destroyed historic Wallarah House and the jetty master's cottage.
"My investigations include an attempted murder by fire, arson, serial arson (wildfire), several accidental deaths and suicide by fire. All as an unpaid volunteer," Mr Miller said in his submission to the inquiry.
"The RFS is a key player in the early identification of serial fire lighters. It has a number of fire investigators throughout the state and most are volunteers. The primary role of a Fire Investigator with the RFS is to examine and determine the origin and cause of fires in areas of RFS responsibility. NSW Police have responsibility for determining who, if anyone, is responsible for lighting a fire and if they should be charged with an offence.
"Fire and Rescue NSW has a similar role and responsibility but has few investigators trained in investigating bushfires. As a result few fires are formally investigated."
Mr Miller resigned in March, 2019 after calling the reclaiming of his RFS pool car as "the final straw".
It followed a senior RFS manager's order that Mr Miller could not communicate directly with detectives investigating a suspected serial Hunter firelighter, despite a prior approval and Mr Miller's history of working with them.
"After 34 years, I am extremely disappointed to leave the service in this way but volunteers deserve better," Mr Miller wrote.
The RFS declined to comment in January when Mr Miller's concerns about the treatment of volunteer fire investigators was raised. The RFS did not respond to questions about landowner fines and prosecutions.