Australian fire report released as bushfires burn

Australian fire report released as bushfiresburn

19 December 2006

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Australia — As Australian authorities brace for a horrorbushfire summer, with blazes in four states, a coroner on Tuesday foundemergency services were unprepared for a deadly 2003 firestorm which swept thenation’s capital.

Almost four years after a bushfire hit Canberra’s sprawling suburbs withcyclonic ferocity, killing four people and razing almost 500 homes, ACT CoronerMaria Doogan said authorities had failed to give proper warning of theapproaching firestorm.

She also took emergency authorities to task for failing to attack fires whenthey were first sparked by lightning in rugged mountains west of the capital onJanuary 8, 2003.

“Frankly, on the evidence before the inquiry, it is a miracle that nomore than four people died,” Doogan said in a letter before unveiling theinquiry to a packed court.

The bushfire hit the unprepared city with an hour’s warning on January 18,sweeping over mountains to the west and blackening whole suburbs as firefightersbacked by helicopter water bombers were overwhelmed. More than 430 people wereinjured.

At the height of the fire, the emergency services command centre caughtalight and one fire station burned down.

Doogan said emergency and parks officials had failed to clear forest trailsof debris which had turned the drought-stricken region into a tinderbox ahead ofthe fire’s path.

The poor preparations had contributed to the damage in the city, known byAustralians as the “bush capital” for its extensive parklands, shesaid, making 73 recommendations to ensure a similar catastrophe did not happenagain.

Former chief fire control officer Peter Lucas-Smith said no additionalbushfire fighting actions would have made much difference given the speed andthe ferocity of the fire.

As the report was handed down, firefighters in the southern island state ofTasmania were preparing to use firebombs dropped from helicopters to burn offareas of forest fuel and slow a large blaze threatening the seaside touristhamlet of Bicheno.” “If you light a lot of small fires then you don’tget one large fire going and running through the bush,” fire servicespokesman Geoff Knight told ABC radio.

In Western Australia, fire crews had contained a large blaze burning in anational park, while milder weather helped firefighters contain fires in thesouth and central west of New South Wales.

In the southern state of Victoria, blazes were still threatening towns where32 houses have been lost and 730,000 hectares (2,800 square miles) of bushlanddestroyed.

Australia faces extreme fire danger this summer due to a severe drought.Bushfires, a regular feature of the summer, have killed more than 250 peopleover the past 40 years.

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