Bushfire hearing set to drag into 2011

Bushfire hearing set to drag into 2011

25 March 2010

published by www.abc.net.au

Australia —   There are signs the ACT Supreme Court compensation hearing into the 2003 Canberra bushfires may extend into next year.

More than 120 people are seeking about $75 million in property losses and damages from the ACT and New South Wales governments.

This is the fourth week of the hearing which was originally set down for 12 weeks.

It has already been extended to 13 weeks and was expected to conclude in late May.

Witnesses for the first plaintiff, Wayne West, are currently being heard and are likely to continue until next Wednesday.

It is expected to take another month to hear evidence from another 90 fire victims appearing for the remaining 126 plaintiffs.


Witnesses for defence are then expected to be called.

Council for the NSW and ACT governments are indicating they may need an extra 11 weeks to accommodate expert witnesses.

Many of these expert witnesses are travelling from the United States and Canada.

But ACT Chief Justice Terence Higgins does not have another opening in his busy diary until April next year.


‘Backburning could have stopped spread’

Yesterday the ACT Supreme Court heard evidence from lay witnesses appearing for Mr West.

Retired ACT fire captain Neil Donoghue told the hearing, the blazes would never have spread to the east if backburning had been done.

“If in those early days the backburning had been done the fire would not have spread to the east,” he said.

“If you could have fixed [the fire spread] up then [before the January 16, 2003] it would have been right.”

Mr Donoghue was a firefighter in the Queanbeyan and Brindabella region for 46 years.

During the 2003 bushfires he was group captain of West Division in the former Yarrowlumla Shire.

He told the hearing that this was not his first experience fighting fires started by lightning strikes.

Under cross-examination by the NSW Government’s junior defence counsel, David Mallon, Mr Donoghue conceded experienced and competent firefighters sometimes disagree about how to tackle bushfires.

Mr Donoghue said it once took 10 weeks to suppress a bushfire and he agreed with Mr Mallon that the delay was not due to incompetence.

Mr Mallon told the hearing the Rural Fire Service standard operating procedures are to firstly protect people, then property and help restore normality.


‘Jumping balls of fire’

Another witness for Mr West, told the hearing that she was “startled by balls of fire jumping huge distances through the tops of the trees”.

Dr Katja Mikhailovich owned Ulmara, an 80 hectare property on the western side of the Goodradigbee River, neighbouring Mr West’s Wyora Station.

In a statement tendered to court, she said she saw fire burning through blackberry bushes and into the tree canopy on the eastern side of the river on January 16, 2003.

An hour-and-a-half later the fire had spread to her property, she said.

Two days later Dr Mikhailovich was evacuated from the valley by helicopter.

She says she was startled to see massive smoke plumes hundreds of metres above the river from the helicopter.


Witness preview

The court is expected to hear evidence from former ACT Emergency Services deputy commissioner Brian Parry and former firefighter Thomas Bates.

Two pilots, Colin Adams and James Hudson, are also expected to give evidence. Both men were involved in fire fighting from fixed-wing aircraft during the 2003 Canberra bushfires.

Next week the Supreme Court is expected to hear evidence from graziers Peter and Tim Castles who are also volunteer firefighters.

Chris Longman, a retired captain for the Wee Jasper Brigade, is also expected to give evidence next week.

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