Australia — The fire chief during deadly 2009 wildfires that killed 173 people in southeastern Australia resigned Friday in the wake of criticism that he failed to take an active role in managing the response to the disaster.
Russell Rees, chief of Victoria state’s Country Fire Authority, had been sharply criticized by the Bushfires Royal Commission, set up to study what went wrong during Australia’s worst-ever fires on Feb. 7, 2009. The panel concluded that Rees failed to protect Victorians and was not actively involved in organizing the firefight.
“Mr. Rees did not appear to become actively involved in operational issues, even when the disastrous consequences of the fires began to emerge,” the commission said in an interim report last August. “There was no one person in charge.”
Rees, who had more than a year left in his contract, said he was clearing the way for a new chief to implement changes to the organization.
“I am making the decision to go now so that the future of CFA is assured,” Rees told reporters. His resignation is effective in June, at the end of the current fire season.
When asked about his mistakes on the day known as Black Saturday, Rees said those issues were a matter for the commission.
He said a new chief should be involved from the start in implementing any recommendations from the commission’s final report, due at the end of July.
“It would be inappropriate for me to stay on and then leave halfway through what I see as being a major change period that will come out of the recommendations at the end of the commission,” Rees said.
On Black Saturday, hundreds of fires raged across southeastern Australia as temperatures soared and powerful winds whipped blazes into firestorms. But the scale of the disaster deeply shocked Australia, where hundreds of wildfires scorch vast areas of forest and farmland every summer but rarely cause deaths.
The commission has also found that communications and other failures hampered efforts to fight the fires, and its findings have already prompted changes to laws and new procedures to try to cope with future events.