What really happened to Celeste Barber’s $110million donation to Australia’s firefighters – and where all the money actually went

Firefighters are only now starting to get some of the $110million raised by comedian Celeste Barber and others during the Black Summer bushfires four years ago.

And despite the nation bracing for a fresh wave of bushfires this summer, none of the money will buy even a single new fire truck, fire chiefs have admitted. 

Four years on from the catastrophic devastation which incinerated 24.3million hectares of bushland, the final spending plans for the impressive charity haul can only now be revealed.

The world was shocked by the extent of the 2019-20 fires, which killed 34 people immediately and led to hundreds of other eventual deaths from smoke inhalation – while over a hundred million mammals perished along with an estimated one billion reptiles and birds.

The apocalyptic scenes triggered Barber’s fundraising appeal for NSW Rural Fire Service which raised a staggering $51million from her 10 million followers on Instagram.

She had originally set a $30,000 target but it quickly ballooned as celebrities like Nicole Kidman endorsed it, with she and US singer Pink donating $500,000 each. 

That was topped up by a further $60million from other appeals – but the fundraising efforts were then stymied by a legal row over how to distribute the money.

Firefighters are only now starting to get cash from the $110million raised by comedian Celeste Barber (pictured) and others during the Black Summer bushfires four years ago

Firefighters are only now starting to get cash from the $110million raised by comedian Celeste Barber (pictured) and others during the Black Summer bushfires four years ago

And despite the nation bracing for a fresh wave of bushfires this summer, none of the money will buy even a single new fire truck like the one pictured, fire chiefs have admitted

And despite the nation bracing for a fresh wave of bushfires this summer, none of the money will buy even a single new fire truck like the one pictured, fire chiefs have admitted

The world was shocked by harrowing images of the country cloaked in an orange glow of acrid smoke as homes and livelihoods were destroyed

The world was shocked by harrowing images of the country cloaked in an orange glow of acrid smoke as homes and livelihoods were destroyed

Many donors thought their money would go directly to the families of firefighters, bushfire victims who had lost their homes, and to help care for ravaged wildlife and restore their habitat.

But after months of legal wrangling, the NSW Supreme Court ordered that, under the strict terms of the appeal, all the cash must only go to the NSW Rural Fire Service and be spent on equipment and training.

The row sparked a furious backlash online.

‘So the fire victims will end up with nothing? What BS,’ said one critic online. ‘She should have checked rules regarding donations to RFS before setting it up.

‘Lesson In checking the fine print.’ 

‘OMG – heartbreaking for all that were affected by the devastation,’ said another.

‘If only funds could be refunded to those that donated so people can select where the money does go. 

‘Give the money back then!’ 

Fire chiefs have now also set up a $10million RFS Benevolent Fund which will be used to provide grants to the families of firefighters injured or killed on duty.

The fund’s operations and processing of claims were only officially launched on December 11, 2023 – four years after the Black Summer bushfires began.

‘Supporting these people through times of significant hardship is the very least we can do,’ said Ken Moroney, fund chairman and former NSW Police Commissioner.

Former NSW Police Commissioner Ken Moroney (pictured right) is the new RFS Benevolent Fund chairman

Former NSW Police Commissioner Ken Moroney (pictured right) is the new RFS Benevolent Fund chairman

‘The fund has only recently been established and over the past month has finalised the appropriate policies and processes to ensure it can provide practical, meaningful assistance to those in need.

“The fund has received a number of applications for support which are currently in various stages of assessment. 

‘Even in its infancy, the fund has been able to provide assistance in necessitous circumstances.’

Despite personally being on the end of the public backlash over the lengthy delay in allocating funds, Barber insisted it was worthwhile.

‘I would 100 per cent do it again,’ she said in 2020. ‘I would advise and recommend everyone do it.

‘No person would go, ‘Nah, I probably wouldn’t raise $52million again because I got backlash.’

‘It’s pretty incredible, I find it quite overwhelming still. It gives me faith. You’re saying, ‘We’re in dark times but power to the people’.

‘Worst case scenario is it stays in the NSW RFS and they get equipment and training  and they can get more volunteers and can train more people up. 

‘That’s the worst case scenario.’

Many donors thought their money would go to the families of firefighters, bushfire victims who had lost everything, and to help rebuild the ravaged wildlife

Many donors thought their money would go to the families of firefighters, bushfire victims who had lost everything, and to help rebuild the ravaged wildlife

But NSW Supreme Court ruled all the cash must only go to the NSW Rural Fire Service to be spent on equipment and training

But NSW Supreme Court ruled all the cash must only go to the NSW Rural Fire Service to be spent on equipment and training

Fire chiefs have now also set up a $10million RFS Benevolent Fund which will be used to provide grants to the families of firefighters injured or killed on duty

Fire chiefs have now also set up a $10million RFS Benevolent Fund which will be used to provide grants to the families of firefighters injured or killed on duty

The fund's operations were only officially launched on December 11, 2023, to begin processing claims more than four years after the Black Summer bushfires began

The fund’s operations were only officially launched on December 11, 2023, to begin processing claims more than four years after the Black Summer bushfires began

The new benevolent fund is the centrepiece of spending plans from the charity windfall, but the RFS shopping list does not include a single fire truck to bolster the service’s ageing fleet.

But that decision has been backed by the Rural Fire Service Association which says even if all the money went toward new Category One water tankers – costing half a million dollars each – that would only benefit a maximum of 200 of the almost 2000 RFS fire brigades across the state.

The government has instead pledged to fund work on reducing the current 15 years old average age of fire trucks in the state by replacing existing vehicles.

‘There were certainly some extra vehicles bought – so some specialised vehicles, such as catering vehicles for people on the firegrounds,’ RFSA President Scott Campbell..

‘There was some forklifts bought and there was some all-terrain vehicles for specialist areas, like remote beach-type communities.

‘A lot of those things that could really assist those those brigades.’

Instead, most of the cash will be spent on upgraded firefighting gear and improved  communications equipment.

The full shopping list includes $9million for 45,000 new firefighting helmets and $6million for 30,000 new masks and respirators to help protect firefighters from smoke pollutants.

The RFS is also spending $36million on the latest mobile data terminals to be installed in firefighting appliances.

Fire chiefs say the new terminals will enable more effective dispatch to emergencies, improve situational awareness to prevent firefighters getting trapped by rapidly advancing walls of flame.

The RFS is also spending $1.35million on improved flight simulators for the new Aviation Centre of Excellence to improve training for aerial firefighters from all around Australia.

Each of the state’s rural fire brigades were also offered grants of up to $10,000 each to upgrade facilities ‘and to spend this money in their local communities’ as part of an $18.5million package.

That cash splash saw fire brigades variously buy 570 computers, 285 chainsaws, 2000 portable radios, 140 thermal imaging cameras, 100 water tanks and 165 generators.

They also bought 30 washing machines, 230 portable pumps, 560 mobile phone signal boosters, 215 electric hose reels and 160 sets of incident scene lighting equipment.

Some pooled their grants to buy larger items like prime movers, motorbikes, trailers, mobile cool rooms, weather stations, marquees and mobile fuel pods.

A further $19.5million has been earmarked ‘to support local programs and initiatives in every RFS District around the State to support volunteers’.

RFSA president Campbell said the new equipment, like the upgraded lightweight BR9 firefighter helmets, was potentially life-saving for his members.

‘I really do need to congratulate Celeste on what she did for raising the money and in the way it’s been distributed through to volunteers on the ground,’ he said.

‘Whilst our older helmets certainly met standards, the BR9 exceeds those standards. It’s given volunteers more protection which is exceptional – it’s such a great thing.

‘The biggest one was the smoke masks which we saw the need for in 2019/20 – that came in the form of a full-face P3 mask, which has got two twin filters. 

‘So now there’s one of those per seat per truck,  across the state, which is just phenomenal.’

Most of the donated cash will be spent on upgraded new firefighting gear and updated state-of-the-art communications equipment to help at fire scenes

Most of the donated cash will be spent on upgraded new firefighting gear and updated state-of-the-art communications equipment to help at fire scenes

The full shopping list includes $9million for 45,000 new BR9 firefighting helmets

It also bankrolled 30,000 new P3 masks and respirators for $6million to help protect firefighters from smoke pollutants

The full shopping list includes $9million for 45,000 new firefighting helmets and $6million for 30,000 new masks and respirators to help protect firefighters from smoke pollutants

The RFS is also spending $36million on the latest mobile data terminals to be installed in firefighting appliances

The RFS is also spending $36million on the latest mobile data terminals to be installed in firefighting appliances

The mobile data terminals are essentially iPad-style tablets which give firefighters access to a variety of vital tools like mapping and overhead views, he said.

‘It has all these technological things that will make us more proficient on the fireground and getting out warnings to public,’ he said.

‘We’ll really quickly know where buildings are in remote areas and that will go a long way to really help establish community safety quicker than has been done before.

‘It’ll give a lot of new information to brigades, which they can access with this and be able to feed that information back and make some some really good decisions.’ 

He said the $10,000 grants to individual brigades had transformed life for many volunteers with new kitchens built, office space and air conditioning installed. 

‘We’re able to do a lot of those things that that were out of reach, which just made the life of a volunteer, let me tell you, very, very pleasant in a lot of circumstances,’ he said.

Andrew Macdonald, chair of the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Fund called the public’s generosity in 2019/20 ‘nothing short of remarkable’.

‘The Trust is separate from the RFS but has worked with the Service to accelerate and supplement a range of projects to directly support volunteers in their operations to protect the community and their wellbeing in times of hardship,’ he said.

‘More than $109 million has been allocated to date to projects including new safety equipment, technology, station improvements, training and the establishment of the RFS Benevolent Fund.’

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