The reckoning: Bushfire Royal Commission findings due today

  The reckoning: Bushfire Royal Commission findings due today

17 August 2009

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Australia — The Bushfire Royal Commission releases its interim findings today after, 35 days of hearings, 26 community meetings with 1200 locals, 87 witnesses and 1000-plus public submissions.

An extreme alert is issued for the Country Fire Authority. Victoria’s firefighting service faces adverse and hazardous conditions and is expected to come under sustained attack. Key CFA personnel are advised to activate their personal safety plan and take cover …

IT IS a warning that could well have been broadcast with the portentous extreme weather warnings that alerted Victorians to grave danger in the days before February 7.

For six months, the service that has long been revered by those it has sought to protect, and which openly lays claim to being among the world’s best, has been battered by allegations of mishap and mistake, even incompetence, in the face of the firestorm that delivered Australia’s worst natural disaster.

From 2.30pm at breaking news coverage from the BRC lock-up and video streaming of the press conference led by Victorian Premier John Brumby.

This week the fallout from Black Saturday will again come into relief with the handing down today of the royal commission’s interim findings. They can be expected to hit the CFA hard, pinpointing lapses and inflexibility that hampered the firefighting effort – thwarting the issuing of timely public warnings and preventing the smooth transfer of incident management between controllers (meaning key information, including an analysis of the most destructive fire’s likely path, was not widely disseminated). The evidence points to a fire service that was overwhelmed.

”There’s going to be a bit of pain,” grimaces a brigade captain of 20 years’ standing. ”It’s clear there were problems within the system. So the CFA is going to have to cop that on the chin.”

As extreme as the weather was on that fateful day, so have been the views in its aftermath, book-ended by those seeking a scapegoat and those arguing that Black Saturday was such an extraordinary phenomenon that it would be wrong to lay blame.

But infuriating many survivors – and some rank-and-file CFA volunteers, – has been the CFA hierarchy’s apparent refusal to issue a mea culpa. Senior management have studiously avoided doing so, largely motivated by loyalty to the organisation and to the ethos of ”shared responsibility”, a construct involving the emergency services and the community that has underpinned the state’s firefighting approach since 1995.

CFA chairman Kerry Murphy acknowledges the community anger, but adds: ”I think the community are led into that to some degree by a misunderstanding of what happened. Now, I’m not saying we did everything perfectly. There were some things we didn’t do very well. There were 627 fire incidents on the day and 11 got away to some degree and one or two badly got away. That’s not abject failure.”

It’s the ones that do get away, however, that can define a fire season.

”We would have liked to have done better, obviously,” continues Murphy, himself a 35-year veteran volunteer and former Mount Macedon brigade captain. ”I think we could have done better on some things. We could have done better on warnings, in some cases. There’s no question in my mind that we have to do better on warnings.

”There’s no reason why we can’t do some stuff on fire index ratings. There’s no reason why we can’t do a bit more on total fire ban days to expand on (the warnings) so that they’re a bit better understood.”

Work is under way already. The CFA recognised immediately that it could not wait for the commission to prescribe remedies or actions. With the new fire season now less than

10 weeks away, and conditions as menacing as ever, it has worked on its own initiatives – on how better to communicate messages, on developing more explicit warnings and so forth – as well as responding to deficiencies revealed in its extensive debriefing of staff and volunteers on the ground that day.

Respondents nominated equipment shortages, a lack of fully trained leaders, confusion over roles and a refusal by managers to listen to local input. The criticisms pointed to a centralised bureaucracy, with limited devolved power at the fire front.

There’s work to be done, clearly. But Murphy is cautious about elaborating, foreshadowing announcements within weeks. ”I think we want to hear what the commission says. We’ll be surprised if, with due respect to the commission, there are not some common elements between what they think and what we think. And we’ll be looking to accommodate what’s recommended.”

No prizes for guessing the focus of the commission’s criticism. The legal team assisting royal commissioner Bernard Teague found that warnings issued by the CFA about specific fires were deficient in content and timing. They were imprecise and in many cases were confusing. The language used was vague, often ambiguous. And undermining that further was flawed technology needed to collate and deliver them.

The legal team, led by Jack Rush, QC, proposed that warnings for the approaching bushfire season should contain a description of the severity of a fire, a ”clear description of where the fire is and where it is predicted to travel”, as well as estimates of the time before the impact of a fire on particular communities. Ultimately, Rush et al suggested the authorities should draw on the ”category one-category two” terminology used in cyclone warnings as a template.

As part of the new regimen, they contended, the warnings ”where appropriate” should refer to a fire as being ”out of control” and posing a risk to life.

But the speed with which the Kilmore and Murrindindi fires devoured terrain and engulfed communities would make such explicit warnings an even greater challenge for the CFA and its co-combatant, the Department of Sustainability and Environment, whose firefighters are responsible for blazes on public land. Especially given the assertion of the commission lawyers that warnings ”must tell people what to do to respond to the threat”.

The prospect of more specific advice alarms some within the fire services, and some ”fireys” will see moves towards issuing directives to people – including, possibly, evacuation orders – as potentially undermining the CFA’s ”stay or go” message, which relies essentially on people drawing their own conclusions from an array of information, including broadcast public warnings.

Though not responding to the legal team’s comments specifically, Murphy says in relation to issuing ”out of control” messages: ”How helpful is that to the person on the ground? You’ve got to do it, but it doesn’t tell them to go left or right, go north, go south (or) don’t go at all.” Then, there’s the issue of roads and geography: ”It’s questionable whether the roads in some areas are of a nature that you could reasonably evacuate with efficiency, let alone in a hurry. There are considerable issues.”

The State Government’s submission for the interim report also warned of the ”limitations of fire predictions” and the tension between timeliness and accuracy. ”Firstly, the accuracy of predictive work depends on having available a sufficient volume of accurate data on the location of the fire and topographic and other conditions. Where there is a fast-moving fire, or a fire in a remote location with limited opportunities for observation, there may not be very much information on which to base predictive work. Secondly, it must be recognised that inaccurate predictions (including predictions based on inaccurate or out of date information) have the potential to put people in harm’s way.”

Though the commission is expected to reinforce the imperative that saving life is paramount and everything else comes second, it seems unlikely to recommend abandoning the Victoria’s ”stay or go” policy.

That shorthand reference has long annoyed the firefighting fraternity because abbreviating the fuller and correct title of ”prepare, leave early

or stay and defend” devalues the primary prerequisite for staying – that is, preparation and informed decision-making.

What seems likely are recommendations to refine the policy, though exactly how remains as vexed a question as that of forced evacuation. But all parties – the Government and the emergency services, including the CFA – say they accept that the policy requires a rethink, and improvement, given witness testimony and the fact that 113 of those people who perished on Black Saturday did so trapped in their homes.

Some commission witnesses and others have questioned the very research on which ”stay or go” was developed: namely, that last-minute evacuations presented the greatest risk of death and that once a fire front passes occupants can prevent the destruction of their homes by dousing embers.

In fact, Black Saturday’s inferno was so intense that many homes simply were unable to be defended.

”Houses burn when the ember blizzard and the almost contemporaneous radiant heat hits them (far less intense than Black Saturday). By the time the firefront passes, the houses are blazing,” wrote academic and former Australian editor of Wildfire Magazine Frank Campbell in his submission. ”The fact is inescapable. In a severe fire, houses are not refuges, they are fuel.”

The technique of dousing embers was ”valid only in grass and low-intensity fires”, wrote CFA volunteer Russell Hall in The Sunday Age. ”People were told they should have a defensible area around homes, without any definition of how large that should be. There was never any recognition of different intensities of fires in different circumstances or that fires could be so intense survival would not be possible.”

Irrespective of such contentions, the CFA’s own research last year concluded that the ”leave early” message was not well grasped by people living in fire-prone zones, most of whom had no comprehensive bushfire survival plan.

The answers, according to the lawyers assisting the commission, are partly in clearer information for people on what factors make a home defensible. They also suggested that before the next fire season the CFA should ”identify and designate bushfire risk zones” in which fire refuges must be provided. Further, power should be vested in CFA personnel allowing them to recommend that particular communities or locations leave early ”based on an assessment of the defendability” of the location.

But the legal team stopped short of recommending forced evacuations, acknowledging the risk that false alarms could amount to a case of ”the boy who cries wolf” and that such a policy was unlikely to ”foster community involvement and individual responsibility in preparing for … bushfire”.

The commission, too, might well be wary of the effect of its recommendations on the CFA’s volunteer army. While the State Government and the commission have gone out of their way to praise the work of the volunteers, onerous new responsibilities imposed upon them could dissuade potential recruits.

”They have to be careful they don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” says one outer-metropolitan volunteer of 30 years’ experience. ”There might have been people failures on February 7 that made the operation look a shemozzle, but I still believe the CFA’s command and control process is a great system.”

Demanding that the CFA identify and inform different locations of their ability to protect themselves posed fresh questions, the veteran suggested. ”What will be the qualifications and experience required of those people who are going to be out there giving that advice? They will need to be very well versed in fuel issues, in weather and topography issues, building materials and so on.”

ANOTHER brigade captain reports that, in terms of morale, the volunteers are holding up well. But he detected nervousness before the coming season, not just because of the continuing extreme dry. ”Where it’s going to be difficult is getting people to do those higher-level responsible jobs, like a level three incident controller (who manages a fire assault). People who work in those incident control teams or at brigade captain level will be thinking ‘If I stuff up am I going to find myself before a royal commission?’

”Every decision that everybody makes will come under scrutiny. Which is fair enough, I suppose, but it has the capacity to promote inertia where people will just refuse to make decisions. And this is a business where you need decision-makers. When something’s on fire you have to make decisions. And quickly.”

But the CFA family, as diverse and as varied as they are (and as dysfunctional as they might sometimes appear), are nothing if not hardy. So far, volunteer numbers are holding, though CFA chairman Murphy admits that the authority continues to work closely with many firefighters who were traumatised by the horror of Black Saturday.

About 900 volunteers have left the service since, many for age and health reasons. But 1400 have put up their hands for the first time. No one’s under any illusion, however: though it’s a net gain, it’s also a loss in terms of experience. And many of the 1400 won’t complete their basic training.

Today’s royal commission report will set fresh challenges. And it is yet to consider in depth issues such as controlled burn-offs, fire danger indices, bunkers and improved communications infrastructure.

Murphy says the CFA is ready to make a flying start, though he hints at an organisation that is hurting.

”The CFA is used to a fair bit of adulation,” he says.

”Maybe you take it a bit harder in fact if someone says, or implies, that you were at fault.”

Had that adulation unrealistically raised expectations? ”I think we raised our own expectations and raised the expectations of the community, too.” But Murphy adds: ”We’re an adaptable organisation. We’ll respond to what’s coming up in a positive frame of mind, and as for the fire season, while you wouldn’t want to see another day like February 7, we’ll be there no matter what happens. I’m confident of that.”
Fire and its aftermath

On February 7, 2009, Victoria was devastated by the worst bushfires in Australia’s history.

173 people died and many others were injured; it destroyed 78 communities, ravaging 430,000 hectares.

The fires burnt more than 2000 properties, 61 businesses and more than 3550 agricultural facilities. It killed or injured more than 11,000 farm animals and swept through 70 national parks and reserves.

The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, chaired by Bernard Teague, was established on February 16 to investigate the causes and responses to the fires.

The interim findings will deal with the efficiency of firefighting operations, the “stay or go” policy and warnings.

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