Australia — The ACT Supreme Court hearing into the 2003 Canberra bushfires has heard the responsible way to respond to lightning strike blazes is to tackle them immediately, day or night.
More than 120 people are seeking about $75 million in compensation from the ACT and New South Wales governments.
The hearing before Chief Justice Terence Higgins is now in its fourth week and yesterday heard from Thomas Bates who spent 50 years managing fires as the forestry overseer at Uriarra west of Canberra.
The plantation pine and eucalypt hardwood forest covers 10,000 hectares between the ACT and NSW border and to the head of the Cotter River below Mount Franklin.
In an affidavit, Mr Bates said active fire prevention ceased towards the end of the 1980s when the Commonwealth handed over management of forestry regions on leased land in New South Wales to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).
“Within a short period of the first or second season of NPWS management of these adjoining previously leased areas … fire trail maintenance and hazard reduction practically ceased,” he said.
The affidavit goes on to describe how Mr Bates was told the Commonwealth had put in too many fire trails and burning off created smoke hazards in Canberra.
But Mr Bates also said summer lightning strikes were common.
“On each and every occasion I would take teams out to immediately contain, control and extinguish the fires on the spot,” he said.
“As Forestry Overseer I was always insistent that crews stay with the fire until it was controlled and extinguished.”
He said this sometimes took many days and even weeks but fires were never left to run.
“Properly approached fire control is not dangerous,” Mr Bates said.
“The only reasonable way to deal with lightning strike fires [is] to deal with them on the spot, whatever the time of day or night, no matter what.”
But the New South Wales defence counsel highlighted a history of tragic incidents involving firefighters during cross-examination of former City of Shoalhaven fire control officer Brian Parry.
Mr Parry has more than 40 years professional experience in rural fire fighting and is appearing at the hearing as a witness for plaintiff Wayne West of Wyora Station.
Senior counsel John Maconachie QC asked Mr Parry whether the safety of firefighters was paramount, to which he agreed.
Mr Maconachie then described fatalities and injuries from fire fighting prior to 2003.
He told the court that in 1998 a crew of up to nine Victorian firefighters perished in a vehicle and at Wingello in New South Wales one firefighter was incinerated.
“A number of others were seriously burnt … their extremities literally burnt away from them,” he told the court.
Mr Parry said the tragedy occurred during a backburn when the lead vehicle lost traction, trapping a tanker on a narrow road.
“This is a sad but stark example of why it is important to have escape routes and protected areas when fighting a fire … in steep country,” said Mr Maconachie.
Mr Parry’s recollection of events in Canberra seven years ago came under sustained attack from Mr Maconachie.
In January 2003 Mr Parry was named Local Hero by the National Australia Day Council.
In a affidavit to court he said he requested leave to attend the Melbourne awards ceremony from former Rural Fire Service commissioner Phil Koperberg.
Mr Parry said he was subsequently approached for help to fight fires in the Yarrowlumla Shire on January 12.
He said commissioner Koperberg would not reverse his leave and told him, “You have already asked not to be away in January for the awards business and you cannot have your cake and eat it too.”
In court, Mr Maconachie repeatedly attacked Mr Parry’s affidavit saying recall is a process of reconstruction which can be fragile.
“Mr Koperburg said nothing of the kind. You are recalling it inaccurately,” he said.
“Reconstruction is something that happens in all of our lives when disappointment occurs. Recall can be inaccurate.”
Mr Parry agreed to the proposition but rejected the attacks on his memory of the 2003 Canberra fires.
Next week barrister Bernard Collaery will conclude the evidence of lay witnesses appearing as part of plaintiff Wayne West’s case.
Lawyers appearing on behalf of 22 plaintiffs, who were insured by QBE, are also expected to begin calling witnesses.
If QBE is successful with its case against the ACT Government, the firm is expected to seek more than $13 million in damages.
Three of QBE’s witnesses are shared with Mr West’s case.
They include Brindabella graziers and volunteer firefighters Peter and Timothy Cathles, and retired Wee Jasper brigade captain Christopher Longley.
Meanwhile, the parties in the caase have told the court they are cooperating to find ways to make the expected 13 week hearing more cost effective.
A memorandum of suggestions for cooperation has been drafted between parties.