Australia — MARK COLVIN: The Royal Commission into Victoria’s bushfires has recommended an overhaul of the way warnings are issued and changes to the controversial “stay or go” policy.
More than six months after 173 people died in the fires the Royal Commission has delivered its interim report. It sketches out what’s needed to avoid another disaster this summer.
Among other things the commissioners want the head of the Country Fire Authority to be given clearer responsibilities when it comes to issuing warnings.
Simon Lauder reports.
SIMON LAUDER: It’s little more than six months on from the black Saturday bushfires but the Royal Commission has already distilled 35 days of public hearings and more than 80 witnesses into a 360-page report containing 51 recommendations.
The Premier John Brumby thanked the commissioners for their speedy work as their interim report was released this afternoon.
JOHN BRUMBY: And I’ll just mention that because the history of royal commissions across Australia is that they often run for years and years and years. And we particularly specifically requested the commission to give us interim recommendations which we could consider to put in place for the fires of 09/10 season and they’ve done that and I thank them for it.
SIMON LAUDER: The commissioners had identified a number of weaknesses and failures with Victoria’s information and warning systems on the 7th of February. The Premier has acknowledged that communications were inadequate on the day and he says the Government is already working to address the problems.
JOHN BRUMBY: This is about looking forward. This about making sure that we make our State as fire-safe as possible. This about making sure we never again see a repeat of February 7.
So the commission has identified areas that worked, that didn’t work so well; and they’ve made their recommendations to us so that we can address them.
SIMON LAUDER: One of the reasons warnings on the 7th of February were non-existent or very late for some communities is that no-one is obliged by law to warn the public.
The commissioners want the law to be changed giving the chief officer of the Country Fire Authority that responsibility.
They also want warnings to be worded more clearly, giving more explicit information to affected communities.
When it comes to general information about bushfire danger the commissioners want a category for bushfire danger that goes beyond extreme so people understand how serious the situation is.
The commission says it’s received little support for the idea of compulsory evacuations but it’s recommending authorities use the word “relocation” instead. It’s asked the CFA to identify sites which could be used as community refuges and make it a priority to protect and defend those sites when there’s a fire.
John Brumby has not warmed to the idea but he says it will be examined closely.
JOHN BRUMBY: Of all of the 51 recommendations there’s not one that we reject but we will need to look at the detail of what it is that they recommend. And to be fair I got this at 11.19am today, okay, so we will need to look at the detail of everything they’ve recommended.
SIMON LAUDER: The fact that most of the people who perished on Black Saturday died in a house has put the stay or go policy in doubt. The idea that houses protect people and people protect houses was shown to be a generalisation too far for the extremes of February the 7th.
The commissioners say the CFA should revise its policy and its brochures about the policy should make it clear the safest option is always to leave and that not all homes are defendable.
As well as questioning fundamental policy the commissioners have highlighted the role of the chief officer of the CFA Russell Rees.
The interim report says Mr Rees did not appear to become actively involved in operational issues even when the disastrous consequences of the fires began to emerge. It says Mr Rees did not look at specific warnings and didn’t see maps which predicted the path of the fires.
The report says the evidence makes it difficult to understand how Mr Rees could properly carry out strategic state-wide coordination. They found that there was no one person in charge at the coordination centre where the chiefs of the fire agencies were based.
Mr Rees has defended his role as he has many times before.
RUSSELL REES: I sit with the fact that I did the very best that I could in the circumstances.
SIMON LAUDER: Mr Rees deflected questions about his own performance by talking about the future.
RUSSELL REES: CFA like everybody feels the pain of that day. We’re on the verge of another difficult fire season and as the Premier said, everything, everything the emergency services can do will be focused on trying to prevent his happen again.
SIMON LAUDER: Only earlier this month Russell Rees was reappointed to the role for another two years. Today John Brumby defended his fire chief saying it’s too early to criticise.
JOHN BRUMBY: I think if you read the report to just, to set the record right, the report says they’ve made some preliminary observations which are not tested and that they would like further information about that. So we look forward to what the commission says in its final report about that.
SIMON LAUDER: It’s clear there’s more pain to come for a state which is still in bushfire recovery mode but with only two weeks of winter left the next fire season is already breathing down Victoria’s neck.
Mr Brumby has warned that rainfall so far puts Victoria on track for a fire season which is potentially more dangerous than the last.
And for all of today’s recommendations the Royal Commission’s work is far from over. It will resume public hearings next week and is due to deliver its final report by July next year.