NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, and Member for Wollondilly, Jai Rowell, have commended Sydney Catchment Authority and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service staff for the quick response responsible for saving vital water supply infrastructure during a recent fire in the Southern Highlands.

Ms Hodgkinson said the blaze first broke out in Balmoral in the Southern Highlands on 17 October and quickly raced from there across the Hume Highway, into the Metropolitan Special Area of the catchment and towards Nepean Dam.

“With westerly winds gusting 80-100 kilometres an hour, the fire that started near Balmoral in the Southern Highlands was heading directly towards the Nepean and Avon dams and the Nepean water filtration plant which supplies 24,000 residents of Picton, Bargo, Thirlmere and The Oaks,” Ms Hodgkinson said.

“A quick and determined response by four SCA staff in the area that day and six officers from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service managed to protect the critical water supply infrastructure and keep water running in the Wollondilly communities who were fighting their own local fires.

“Their efforts saved all the operational buildings and importantly the Nepean Water Filtration Plant sustained only minor damage.”

Mr Rowell said if the Nepean Water Filtration Plant had been destroyed the main water supply to Wollondilly shire would have been disrupted.

“This would have affected not only the drinking water supplies to homes but the availability of water to the fire fighting effort for a significant period,” he said.

SCA fire fighter Colin Heaslip said the heat from the approaching front let them know it was getting close.

“The first sense we had that the fire was close was at 3pm with the sky getting redder and redder and heat from the valley was intensifying. For a few moments we just stood there waiting,” he said.

“Then it became very dark and the first embers began to shower down onto the depot. It was so dry and hot that it seemed every ember was igniting something.”

The fire fighters focused on putting out the spot fires that were setting alight the buildings and nearby trees. One noticed that embers had gotten inside one of the heritage sheds on the site, which he quickly hosed down.

The Nepean office also temporarily caught alight before it was brought under control.

Minutes later the fire front reached the Nepean water filtration plant and immediately parts of the structure began catching alight. The team worked hard to keep on top of each outbreak.

Within 20 minutes the main fire front had passed and the team focused on putting out spot fires left behind. By about 9pm they finally felt confident they had protected the area and could leave until back-up was due there the next morning to begin mopping up the site.

Not everything was saved at Nepean. The children’s playground and the historic Resident Officers cottage adjacent to the bush were destroyed.

“Looking at the maps now you realise what a tiny patch of clear ground we were defending, completely surrounded by vast areas of bushland,” Mr Heaslip said.

“You just had to get stuck in and do your bit.”

Rural Fire Service (RFS) Southern Highlands team manager Superintendent Martin Surrey praised the SCA’s rapid response to the fire threat.

“The RFS is extremely impressed with the support from all agencies, including the SCA and NPWS, for their work in protecting the water supply infrastructure”, he said.

“We enjoy a fantastic working relationship with SCA and NPWS and their expertise and local knowledge is something very beneficial when fighting fires in the Wollondilly and Wingecarribee Districts.”

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