Australia — CFA Chief Officer Russell Rees denied today that warnings to the public took a back seat to fire fighting on Black Saturday.
Mr Rees told the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission there were shortcomings in warnings to the community, particularly about the Kilmore East fire that killed 121 people.
“There were things we didn’t get right. We’re striving to get better and better,” Mr Rees said.
“We had system failures but we had system successes.”
Mr Rees claimed that despite 173 people dying on Black Saturday, the Intregrated Emergency Co-ordination Centre in Melbourne worked “very, very well”.
Jack Rush QC, counsel assisting, asked how he could make that statement when the commission has heard the CFA lost track of the Kilmore East fire and failed to warn people in Kinglake, Kinglake West, Strathewen and St Andrews and other communities that a firestorm was heading towards them.
Mr Rees said the fire acted in ways that were well beyond reasonable predictions.
“The systems were put under enormous pressure,” he said.
The Chief Officer said the co-ordination of CFA and DSE firefighting efforts produced a better outcome than if they had been working separately.
“I hate to think what it would have been like,” he said.
Mr Rush read from a newspaper article that quoted DSE Chief Fire Officer Ewan Waller saying he and Mr Rees realised that if the Kilmore East fire crossed the Hume Highway it would impact on communities like Kinglake later in the day.
The fire cross the highway at lunchtime.
Mr Rees said he knew it was a significant fire but he said it spotted and spread in an unprecedent manner.
Mr Rees said that on February 7 the state’s main bushfire fighting agencies, the CFA and DSE, were trialling the new-look IECC where they worked together to share strategic information and co-ordinate the fire fighting effort.
Mr Rush suggested that although they were sitting together DSE and CFA staff had different fire mappers and two separate websites giving conflicting information to the public.
Mr Rees admitted there was conflicting information being released.
“I think that (the lack of) one website is clearly a weakness. We haven’t got there yet,” Mr Rees said.
Mr Rush said that at 3.38pm a fire tower operator at Kangaroo Ground reported the Murrindindi fire, that eventually overwhelmed Marysville, was “huge” with 35m flame heights and a massive column of smoke.
But a statewide situation report produced at 4pm did not even mention the Murrindindi fire.
Mr Rees said it was obvious the situation reports were not up to date but they were dealing with a number of fires that threatened communities.
He said he realised early in the evening there had been fatalities.
“It was probably my worst fear. In my heart of hearts I realised if we didn’t have fatalities we would be very very lucky,” he said.
Mr Rees said he did not consider declaring a State of Disaster because there was no failure of power, health or other services on Black Saturday.