The Rural Fire Service captain has been hailed as a hero in the tiny NSW Southern Highlands town after he headed an odds-defying effort to save 120 of the community’s 140 homes when many believed the town had been wiped off the map.
Not only that, he says he held an “unauthorised” village meeting just 48 hours before Balmoral was hit by a ferocious bushfire 10 times in three days last month.
Despite there being no evacuation order from the RFS at that point, he politely told everyone to leave.
They did, and he believes that if he hadn’t held that meeting, residents would have died.
Despite all this, he told news.com.au he feels he has now been “blacklisted” by the RFS for criticising the organisation’s hazard reduction plan — which he claims left the village and its surrounding towns “exposed” to the Green Wattle Creek fire – and taking matters into his own hands.
“The burn plan they had was very flawed and it was going to leave our village exposed to the fire,” he said.
“I had challenged that, but was told that they’re the experts because the RFS paid staff do all the computer programming to work out where should be burned.”
He said no hazard reduction burns had been done in the area surrounding Balmoral since 2001 — meaning there was 18 years of fuel growing on the ground.
“It was a time bomb waiting to go off,” he said.
He said the only thing done to protect the village was a hazard reduction done out to the west at Centre Ridge — but that was up to nine months old when the bushfire hit in December.
“They believed that it would be enough to either hold the fire or if it came through, it would be very gentle,” he said.
But when the fire hit, Mr O’Connor — a veteran of the Black Saturday fires in Victoria — said he had never seen anything like it in his 21 years as a firefighter.
He described the scenes as “hell on earth” as flames soared more than 200m above the treetops and embers the size of footballs began to rain down on Balmoral.
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“The problem was the fuel load was already back there to allow a fire to travel through it,” he said.
“Then there was 4km unburnt to the village, so even though it came through gently, it was going to have enough distance to build up into a big fire. The Centre Ridge reduction didn’t slow it down one bit.”
Frustrated at what had happened to his town, Mr O’Connor challenged the RFS and questioned why more hazard reduction burning hadn’t been done.
“They didn’t like it of course,” he said. “I don’t claim to be an expert, but we live here, we walk that ground and know what it is.
“These guys sit in a head office, never walk the ground and don’t ask questions of locals.”
He said he was told because there had been a burn at Centre Ridge, there was no need to burn around Balmoral before December’s fires — a decision Mr O’Connor believes left the nearby communities of Bargo, Yerrinbool and Yanderra at risk.
Mr O’Connor said he also “got into trouble” for holding an “unauthorised” meeting — asking everybody to leave two days before the fire hit.
“I asked for fire control to come out with the paid staff, but they didn’t,” he said. “I wasn’t going to wait to see our residents potentially die.
“I asked everyone to leave the village, simple as that. By the Saturday, when the fires came through, there was virtually nobody left.
“When the official warnings came through for people to leave, it was too late, the fire was already impacting our village. People would have died if they had stayed, it was that bad.”
Now, as Balmoral picks up the pieces he says “people are angry” about the hazard reduction situation.
And, Mr O’Connor says he feels like he’s been “black-listed” for raising concerns.
“I’m not going to say, ‘I told you so’,” he said. “But what they should be saying is, ‘How can we help this situation?’ But all they are doing is pushing me further away.”
News.com.au has reached out to the RFS for a response.
On its website, it says hazard reduction is just one way of preparing for bushfires.
“It doesn’t remove the threat of fire, and it doesn’t remove the need for you and your family to be prepared,” it says.
“There are different types of hazard reduction, including controlled burning, mechanical clearing like slashing undergrowth, or even reducing the ground fuel by hand.”