Sydney NYE2019 Bushfire Controversy

Bushfires in New South Wales started in early September, unusually early, given the bushfire season is usually considered to start in October.  At the time of writing, there has not been a single day since without a significant bushfire burning somewhere in New South Wales.

Controversy Builds

In mid-November, due to the bushfire emergency, numerous petitions were started in favour of cancelling this edition and shifting the budget to bushfire & drought relief. Signatures mostly occurred after controversy arose at around 10pm on the 13th of November due to a spectacular fireworks display being held on Sydney Harbour (1 barge in Farm Cove) as part of a corporate function for air conditioning company, Daikan.

It was held with a legal exemption from a total fire ban, in a very high fire danger warning period, a day after Sydney’s first ever ‘Catastrophic’ fire danger warning (a new system introduced in 2009 following Black Saturday). The display was done by Howard & Sons Pyrotechnics. This display sparked mass cancellations of fireworks displays around Australia all the way up to NYE. The signatures kept on coming for 4 more days due to media coverage of the petitions.

The Donation Appeal

On the 18th Of November, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, announced a bushfire/drought donation appeal will be held as part of this year’s Sydney NYE edition:

The Australian Red Cross will be an official partner in the appeal. They chose Red Cross following discussions with NSW Rural Fire Service who advised them it’s not conducting a relief appeal. As of 3rd December, 2 petitions contained about 35,000 signatures each.

The Megafire

Between the 4th & 9th of December, 6 to 8 bushfires to the northwest of Sydney combined to form a megafire the size of Sydney itself. During this period, signatures on the petitions went from 40,000 to 80,000.

On the 10th of December, the petitions went from 80,000 to 150,000 signatures in 12 hours, when Sydney’s air quality plummeted to a hazardous level of an index of 2200 due to smoke from the megafire. Normal air quality is at an index of 60 or lower. As of 12th December, 2 petitions (here and here) contain about 175,000 signatures each.

The megafire ended up becoming the largest forest fire in recent Australian history.

City Of Sydney Statement

On the 18th of December, the City Of Sydney issued an official statement titled ‘Why We’re Not Cancelling The Fireworks’.

The 2nd Megafire

Over the next week, a bushfire developed in south-east Sydney, reaching the size of the 1st megafire. It destroyed the town of Balmoral. This 2nd megafire ended up virtually cutting off southern road access to Sydney at times.

The Internal E-mail

On the 27th of December, an internal e-mail from the Northern Beaches Council Executive Manager Of Community Engagement, Kath McKenzie, to the Northern Beaches Councillors said a decision was made at a meeting of local governments, state government & the New South Wales Rural Fire Service just before 25 December:

The decision was that the City Of Sydney fireworks will go ahead unless catastrophic fire conditions are forecast.

In the situation where catastrophic fire conditions are declared, …all…will be cancelled.

This internal e-mail was later obtained by The Sunday Telegraph who published it on the 29th of December.

As of 29 December, the 2 main petitions (here and here) had around 262,000 signatures.

More than 86% of people were in favour of abandoning Sydney NYE2019 in favour of donating the funds to farmers in a survey conducted by The Daily Mail Australia.

Rural Fire Service Confusion

The Rural Fire Service responded to the internal e-mail but with different statements:

A Rural Fire Service spokesman told the Sydney Morning Herald it is “highly unlikely” Sydney NYE2019 fireworks will have their exemption revoked.

“We are highly unlikely to see extreme or catastrophic fire warnings through Sydney. I would be surprised if they were cancelled,” the spokesman said, given the fire danger is likely to be ‘severe’ and the fireworks are over the Harbour and unlikely to spread to at-risk bush areas:

We are expecting a change to move through the state in the afternoon and early evening on New Year’s Eve, which may result in no total fire bans for New Year’s Day

However, Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said:

We are expecting the southerly change to move through the coast, impact into the Sydney basin around about 7 in the evening. We are mindful of the volatility of a southerly.

If I determine it to be too risky, that doesn’t concern me.

The pyrotechnics organisations and local authorities are used to working with us around exemptions in the summer period, whether it is Christmas, New Year or some other event.

They know the arrangements, the procedures, and we will work through to make sure that risk is appropriately addressed & where necessary, we won’t allow them to go ahead

Event Response

Fortunato Foti, fireworks director for Sydney NYE2019, at White Bay, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, said safety was a top priority:

Wind plays an integral part in what we do and don’t do

With a system that we use for firing the show, we’re able to reduce different types of fireworks, depending on what priority we’re given as far as the worst case scenario, so we’re able to dial it down that way.

The show would still continue, but with different elements taken out of it to reduce any risks if necessary – and that’s purely on a wind situation

Also at White Bay, Sydney New Year’s Eve Head Of Audience, Tanya Goldberg, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, said that the City Of Sydney was liaising with the New South Wales Department Of Premier and Cabinet, Bureau of Meteorology, Fire and Rescue, NSW Rural Fire Service & NSW Health, she was “speaking daily” to fire departments & that a “total fire ban exemption would be allowed”:

Like everyone, we at the City of Sydney are deeply affected by what we’ve been seeing over these last months

But we are of the firm view that Sydney New Year’s Eve should not be cancelled

At this point the fireworks are proceeding as planned

Safety is our top priority and our paramount concern as we strive to deliver the event as planned.

Extreme weather requires an appropriate response

There are of course mixed views but a lot them have indicated they want to see the fireworks continue

Preparations for these celebrations began 15 months ago, which means most of the budget, largely used for crowd safety, has already been spent

Cancelling would have little practical benefit for devastated communities

Cancelling would seriously hurt Sydney businesses particularly in the wake of reports of a weaker retail season & would also ruin plans for tens of thousands of people who have come from across the country and overseas who have made their plans, booked their flights, hotels and restaurants & other arrangements for Sydney New Year’s Eve

The opportunity to come together & celebrate what is good, to express hope, a little happiness and sense of togetherness is arguably even more important than ever

Political Responses

On the 29th of December, the City Of Sydney updated their ‘Why We’re Not Cancelling The Fireworks’ statement.

The City Of Sydney also told various sources that the fireworks “are going ahead as planned”, regardless of conditions, saying scrapping the show would ultimately do more harm than good.

Lord Mayor of the City Of Sydney, Clover Moore, at White Bay said all of Sydney had been “deeply saddened” by the impact of the bushfires & if there was a total fire ban on New Year’s Eve the City Of Sydney would “do what we need to do”.

Sydney’s New Year’s Eve unites people from all over the world with a message of hope for the year to come.

We have committed to harnessing the enormous power of the event to raise more money for drought and fire-affected communities, with money going to the Australian Red Cross

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian at a bushfire press conference said on 29 December she would take advice from the Rural Fire Service:

We’re elected on behalf of the community to protect our community, to protect our citizens but if there is no safety reason why those fireworks shouldn’t continue, we will proceed.

We are a hopeful, optimistic state

We are a resilient state

We appreciate that there is a lot of suffering in the community at the moment

I appreciate there’s a lot of anxiety in the community, there is a lot of fear, depending on where you live about what’s happening in the community at the moment but the best thing we can do is to stay strong and resilient … We will get through these times, as difficult as they are

If the RFS, if the experts, say it’s safe to have the fireworks continue, well, we should do that

I would support the efforts in keeping the fireworks going

Sydney is one of the first cities in the world welcoming in the New Year

If it is safe to do so, we should continue to do it as we have done every other year

I think it is important to send a message to the world, so long as it is safe to do so … we will keep doing what we do normally

Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison said at a bushfire press conference on 29 December:

I think it is important to send a message to the world, so long as it is safe to do so – we will take the advice of the Rural Fire Service as we do every year – as long as it is safe to do so. We will keep doing what we do normally.

On New Year’s Eve the world looks at Sydney. Every single year and they look at our vibrancy, they look at our passion, they look at our success, and they all think to themselves, ‘What an amazing place’.

They are right and so in the midst of the challenges that we have faced, subject to the safety considerations, I can think of no better time to express to the world just how optimistic and positive we are as a country

The New South Wales Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, in a tweet from London, UK whilst on holiday called for the cancellation of Sydney New Year’s Eve 2019:

On NYE, the bushfires in south-east New South Wales & eastern Victoria went out of control very dangerously. The air quality plummeted again in Sydney to a maximum hazardous level of 238 on the air quality index at 9am with visibility at a maximum poor level of 105 on the air quality index at 11am. It was the event’s worst air quality since NYE2001, when the event was in a similar situation due to the Black Christmas fires.

This initiated the final political response from Anthony Albanese. He stated his belief that it is “problematic” that Sydney New Year’s Eve 2019 is being held while bushfires are burning around the country and at an escalating rate on the event day.

The Event & Rural Fire Service Defends

Tanya Goldberg, the Sydney NYE2019 Head Of Audience, told the Today morning breakfast television show on 30 December that cancelling the fireworks would not benefit victims of the bushfires:

We know that cancelling the fireworks will have zero practical benefit for those fire-ravaged communities

The one thing that will help those communities is to go ahead with the event and leverage the power of it to drive people to donate, to demonstrate their generosity by going to the Australian Red Cross disaster relief and recovery fund

They can go to nye.Sydney/donate and we will be promoting that in the lead up, and that I can do

At some point between the 29th December & NYE, their ‘Why We’re Not Cancelling The Fireworks’ statement was once again updated. It’s final version prior to NYE said:

But we can’t cancel the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Even if we could, it would have little practical benefit for affected communities.

We began preparations for the New Year’s Eve celebrations 15 months ago. This means most of the budget, largely used for crowd safety and cleaning measures, has already been spent.

Cancelling the event would seriously hurt Sydney businesses. It would also ruin plans for tens of thousands of people from across the country and overseas who have booked flights, hotels and restaurants to be here for New Year’s Eve.

Planning for weather conditions

The City of Sydney works closely with NSW Government agencies such as the Department of Premier and Cabinet, NSW Health, NSW Police and Fire and Rescue NSW in the lead-up to Sydney New Year’s Eve.

If a total fire ban is declared, we’ll continue to liaise with NSW Government agencies and the NSW Rural Fire Service to determine the safest way to proceed with the event.

In the event of high winds, we’ll assess the conditions with fireworks director Fortunato Foti.

We’ll continue to discuss weather and safety issues such as smoke haze, and how to manage them, as we get closer to the event date.

We encourage everyone to be mindful of the conditions and how they could impact on health.

Watched by millions

The display is watched by 1 billion people worldwide, showcasing Sydney to the world as a safe, inclusive and attractive place to visit.

Sydney New Year’s Eve generates $130 million for the NSW economy and super charges our tourism industry, creating jobs and supporting countless small businesses.


Rather than cancelling the event, we’ve donated $620,000 to support communities and wildlife impacted by bushfire and drought, and offered our trucks and staff to help emergency services with clean-up and recovery.

We’re also promoting an online fundraiser for the Red Cross Disaster Recovery and Relief Fund in the lead-up to and on New Year’s Eve.

During the broadcast and on the night, we’ll encourage those gathered around the harbour and watching at home to give generously.


The event will also support our official charity partner, the Refugee Council of Australia, as we begin 2020: The Year of Welcome.

The Australian Red Cross Relief and Recovery fund is specifically set up to give people support when disasters happen.

This fund has already helped support more than 13,500 Australians at evacuation centres, recovery hubs and over the phone when disasters strike.

It’s now providing cash grants of $2,000 to people who have lost their homes in the recent bushfires, so they can meet everyday expenses.

It helps Red Cross emergency volunteers get to disaster-affected areas, covers their expenses and funds their equipment and training.

It means Red Cross can be there whenever a disaster strikes and stay afterwards to help people and communities recover.

Carbon offset

The City of Sydney’s fireworks will be carbon offset. They’re also biodegradable to reduce waste and environmental impact.

The event will also be greener this year, with our sites and operations using 100% accredited GreenPower.

This year we’ll buy GreenPower certificates to the equivalent of our energy use.

These will cover 10 sites across the city, including Bicentennial and Pirrama parks and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The certificates will support the production of renewable energy at Sapphire Wind Farm in northern NSW.

All City of Sydney-owned properties will use energy bought with GreenPower certificates from 1 July 2020, supporting energy generated by Sapphire Wind Farm and 2 other renewable energy projects.

A version of the statement published after NYE emphasised the fundraising efforts, how successful it was and just to wish everyone a Happy New Year! It was a massive success, breaking recods to raise $23 million dollars between NYE & January 4 inclusive. The previous record for a NYE appeal was $1.4 million in about 4 days for the Indian Ocean Earthquake & Tsunami victims. It should be noted it was the 1st ever international appeal for Sydney NYE with all previous ones, the last being on NYE2004 (the previous record holder), targeted to a solely Australian audience.

Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, said on the 30 December:

We will be weighing up the risks this afternoon with more details on the forecast. I don’t envisage a cancellation of the fireworks on account of the total fire bans

Any perceived risk will be remediated

He also said he’s “confident, unless something untoward comes out of the forecast”, that the event will go ahead and that the New South Wales Rural Fire Service is working with all parties to finalise exemptions on a possible total fire ban for the City Of Sydney.

Weather Forecast

A total fire ban was enforced on NYE but the event got an exemption for it’s fire-related events. There was no total fire ban on NYD.

‘Severe’ (67%) fire danger was forecast for NYE & ‘Very High’ (50%) fire danger for NYD.

Final Results

The 2 main petitions (here and here) ended up receiving about 284,000 signatures each at the conclusion of Sydney NYE2019, which, as you can read, went ahead.

‘Unity’ beam below the Australian & New South Wales flags at half mast on NYE2019.
Photograph: 9 News

The flags of Australia & New South Wales atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge were lowered to half-mast during NYE out of respect for the people who died in the bushfires prior to NYE. A few even died on NYE itself.The event went ahead.


Newspaper cartoon from late December 2019. Most likely the newspaper was ‘The Daily Telegraph’.