FIRES had been raging in the ACT and NSW for nine days when a planning meeting attended by so many people that some were standing outside the door started at the Emergency Services Bureau in suburban Curtin about 6.30pm on January 17, 2003.
ESB planner Rick McRae told the meeting that the next day there was a potential for fire, if unchecked, to reach Uriarra by midday, the Cotter pub and reserve by 4pm and Mount Stromlo and Narrabundah Hill by 8pm. Narrabundah Hill is next to Eucumbene Drive in Duffy. Back then, it was an area of pine forest.
A media release issued by the ESB at 8.50pm on January 17 said spot fires had escaped containment lines, there was a serious threat to property in rural Tidbinbilla, and there would be significant smoke over the urban area the next day. There was no mention of a risk to urban residents.
The next day, January 18, another “standing room only” planning meeting started at the ESB about 9.30am.
The meeting was told there was potential that day for the McIntyre’s Hut fire to make a run to the urban interface from Weston Creek to Greenway and possibly affect western South Belconnen. The predicted impact time was about 6pm.
After the planning meeting Hilton Taylor, who worked for ACT Forests but had been seconded to the planning unit of the ESB during the fires, wrote a message form for his section.
In it, he predicted the McIntyre’s Hut fire could have an impact on the Canberra rural/urban interface from Hawker to Weston from about 3pm that day.
Taylor handed the memo to ESB operations manager Tony Graham at an unknown time on January 18. There was no evidence anyone else saw the memo.
Taylor later said his prediction was worst-case and he believed “the fire progress would be checked in the grasslands” before reaching the urban edge. That appeared to be the universal belief within the ESB.
The NSW Rural Fire Service at 11am on January 18 said the McIntyre’s Hut fire posed a threat only to the Uriarra pines and a potential threat to rural holdings in the ACT between the pine plantations and Canberra urban areas.
At noon on January 18 when the McIntyre’s Hut fire was estimated to be still about 12km from the urban edge of Canberra, the ESB held a media conference in which Chief Fire Control Officer Peter Lucas-Smith urged people living in the western suburbs to start taking precautions such as clearing their gutters and connecting their hoses and remaining vigilant for any flying embers.
The 1pm news on 666 ABC Radio reported Canberra residents had been warned to prepare for the approaching fires. Other information about what to do when the fire approached and for people to be “fire-ready” was also broadcast.
Between 1pm and 2pm, according to submissions on behalf of Lucas-Smith and former ESB executive director Mike Castle, the McIntyre’s Hut fire moved much faster than anticipated – going “further in that hour than it had in the preceding 12 hours”.
“During the course of this hour, ESB were preparing the Standard Emergency Warning Signal for issue,” it read. “Mr Castle signed it at [2.05pm] and due to problems with fax machines, it was not broadcast until about [2.40pm].”
Fire expert Phil Cheney estimated the McIntyre’s Hut fire burnt through Pierces Creek about 3.30pm and crossed the Murrumbidgee River about 3.45pm. The McIntyre’s Hut and Bendora fires joined and hit the western and southern suburbs of Canberra about 4pm, although some spot fires hit earlier. A tornado-like wind caused further damage to Chapman and Kambah.
Four people died, hundreds were injured and $610million damage was done, including the loss of 487 homes, as the fires wreaked havoc on that day.
Why the predictions being discussed so openly within the ESB were not made public and why residents were not warned until noon on January 18 of any possible impact on the urban areas are questions that have generated hundreds of pages of submission to Coroner Maria Doogan.
The submissions suggest the answer to the question of warnings lies in a choice between ESB officials deliberately withholding information from the public in a serious dereliction of their duty or the officers being “unduly optimistic” about their chances of stopping the fires before they reached the urban edge and then being caught out by the speed and ferocity of the firestorm.
Submissions also have argued the officers were working under difficult conditions, were fatigued and acted only according to opinions they honestly held at the time.
After opening more than three years ago, hearing evidence on 92 days and generating more than 8000 pages of transcript, the $6million coronial inquiry into the bushfires has almost concluded.
Counsel for NSW makes its final submission on Friday, bringing to an end the wrapping-up by the parties. All that remains then will be for Doogan to give her final report and any recommendations.
However, before publishing her report, Doogan must give notice to anyone she intends making an adverse finding on, which could result in further legal action and delays.
But the end does appear nigh for proceedings which were delayed not least by a failed Supreme Court action launched by the ACT and nine individuals to remove Doogan on the grounds of a reasonable apprehension of bias.
The ACT Government says the inquiry has cost it $6.453million, including the cost of the failed Supreme Court action. Individuals’ representation cost $2.1million; the ACT’s representation $4.3million.
The Government says all those costs – except for $31,682 – have “been met under the ACT’s insurance arrangements”.
The focus of Lex Lasry, QC, senior counsel assisting the coroner, has been on the beginning and the climax of the emergency: the initial response on January 8 when fires were ignited by lightning in the ACT and NSW and the lack of adequate warning ahead of the January 18 firestorm.
Lasry and junior counsel assisting, Ted Woodward, have argued that aggressive direct attack on the three fires that ignited in the ACT on January 8 could have brought them under control within 24 to 48 hours.
They are especially critical of the decision to withdraw firefighters from the Bendora fire late on January 8, preventing an overnight assault on it when conditions, it was argued, would have been at their most benign.
They contend the extreme drought conditions at the time should have put authorities on alert to respond quickly but instead a casual approach was employed.
Lawyers for the ACT and individuals say the criticisms ignore the realities of the firefight and no one was treating the fires flippantly. Key access trails were overgrown and in some cases impenetrable. Heavy equipment was not readily available. There had been safety concerns about keeping firefighters at Bendora.
Counsel assisting also argue NSW authorities took the wrong approach to the McIntyre’s Hut fire, which ignited in the Brindabella National Park to the north-west of the ACT. NSW decided to stop the path of the wildfire by burning out a 10,000ha containment area. Counsel assisting argued the area was far too big to burn before the onset of predicted bad weather and was part of the reason NSW dropped aerial incendiaries on January 17 in a last-ditch bid to burn out the containment area. ESB officers said they objected to NSW about dropping the aerial ignitions in worsening weather.
Counsel assisting’s submission says it is open to Doogan to decide that if the aerial ignitions instead had been dropped by NSW on January 14, 15, or even 16, the fire might not have burnt into Canberra on January 18 with the speed and intensity it did.
Lasry and Woodward also contend adequate warning ahead of the January 18 firestorm didn’t come because Castle, Lucas-Smith and McRae deliberately decided not to release the information in a serious dereliction of their duty.
They say withholding the information was a cause of the massive destruction in Canberra and it was also open to the coroner to find it was a cause of the death of Duffy mother Alison Tener. Lawyers for the ACT and the ESB officers argued that that link was too speculative and remote to be given any credence. The court heard heavy fuel loads in the forests should be seen as a more likely cause of the fire that hit Canberra because they impeded the firefighting effort and added to the size and speed of the fires.
Lasry says he is not alleging a conspiracy, trying to blame anyone or implying criminal conduct. No one was being criticised for not predicting the size of the firestorm.
Instead, there was evidence senior officers from January 13 believed there was a risk of some kind of impact on the urban area of Canberra but that risk had not been conveyed to the people of Canberra until the noon media conference on January 18 and, even then, not explicitly or urgently enough.
Counsel assisting have asked Doogan to find there was “no meaningful warning” until the issue of the first Standard Emergency Warning Signal at 2.40pm on January 18.
Lasry said if the Canberra public had been given a warning that an impact could occur in the urban area, some residents might not have gone to the coast that weekend or might have taken precautions to save their property. Many had no inkling at all they were at risk.
Lasry said he had never understood the disadvantage in letting people know a risk existed. The answer might lie in the “somewhat convoluted approach” taken to the issue of when warnings should be issued, a misplaced desire not to alarm the community and a breakdown of coordination within ESB.
Lawyers for the ACT and ESB officers argue the information was not released because the officers believed they still had time and opportunity – even on January 18 – to stop the fires before they reached the urban edge. Grasslands eaten out by stock between the forests and the urban edge to the east of the Murrumbidgee River were seen as presenting the best chance.
The ACT and ESB argue no one had predicted the speed and magnitude of the January 18 firestorm. The ESB’s own predictions about how the fires might travel on January 18 had been worst-case scenarios.
There were many examples of firefighters and experts being caught out by the fires but the ESB officers were expected to have a prescience no one else did.
The lawyers also argue the ESB officers had no motive in withholding information from the public. They had rung around some rural lessees on the evening of January 17 to warn them of the fires. Withholding similar information from the urban population was “incongruous”.
Lawyers for the ACT conceded the officers got it wrong in some of their decisions, including not letting the public know of the risk after the January 17 evening meeting and waiting too long to hold the noon media conference on January 18. But the ACT denied any officer acted wilfully during the emergency. Instead they had been “unduly optimistic”, about their chances of holding the fires. It was also denied a desire not to panic the population was the reason warnings were inadequate. “The most reasonable inference is that these officers failed to anticipate the immediacy of the impact,” the ACT said.