Top Australia firefighter criticised over wildfires
2 July 2009
published by AFP
Australia — An inquiry into Australia’s worst bush blazes heard that a top firefighter did not warn residents properly as flames bore down on their homes, engulfing entire towns and killing 173.
Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) head Russell Rees failed to perform basic tasks during February’s disaster and was “divorced from fundamental aspects” his job, the chief lawyer assisting the judicial commission said.
Counsel Jack Rush questioned Rees’ actions during the February firestorms, which were caused by record high temperatures, strong winds and drought-parched countryside.
Rush said protecting lives was a core part of Rees’ job but the CFA chief had not issued accurate and timely warnings about the devastating fires that ravaged large parts of rural Victoria.
“It is a core responsibility (of the CFA chief) to warn communities of the risk of fire,” Rush said, dismissing Rees’s statement that his role did not involve direct control of firefighting.
Rush is the senior lawyer assisting the royal commission into the fires and the inquiry chief, retired judge Bernard Teague, must now decide whether to include the damning assessment of Rees in an interim report due August 17.
The inquiry was set up in the aftermath of the bushfires to examine how the seasonal blazes raced out of control to become Australia’s worst peace-time disaster.
The number of deaths eclipsed the previous record bushfire toll of 75 in 1983, destroying more than 2,000 homes, forcing 10,000 to evacuate and scorching huge swathes of Victoria.
Victoria state premier John Brumby defended Rees, saying the fire chief had done all he could in the face of the inferno.
“I don’t believe we could have asked for more from Russell Rees and the leadership team and our volunteers and our professional firefighters,” Brumby told reporters.
“I think they did an outstanding job and I think more generally the community believes that as well.”
Survivors told repeatedly how they were surprised by the speed of the flames as the fire leapt carefully constructed firebreaks and lit up buildings before people could flee.
Many of the victims were found charred in their cars on country roads short distances from their homes, having left their dash too late.
Melbourne University fire behaviour specialist Kevin Tolhurst told the inquiry earlier this year that the fires generated energy equivalent to 1,500 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
Rush recommended a number of measures to improve bushfire warnings, including sending warnings by mobile phone text messages to people in threatened areas.
He said sirens, which were banned by the CFA to avoid disturbing residents, should be set up in towns to warn of approaching flames.
Rush also called for the establishment of community fire shelters and said Internet-based warning systems, which were criticised for displaying outdated information during the disaster, should be centralised.
“A 30- to 40-minute delay in relation (to) urgent threat messages is not an acceptable position in this day and age,” he said.