Former CFA chief praises Black Saturday fire boss

Former CFA chief praises Black Saturday fire boss

24 April 2010

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Australia —   The former chief executive of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority has defended its chief officer, Russell Rees, who resigned yesterday.

Speaking for the first time about the Bushfires Royal Commission, Neil Bibby said he thought the much-criticised Mr Rees did a fantastic job on Black Saturday.

Mr Rees denies that he is stepping down in anticipation of damning findings in the Commission’s final report.

The interim report of the Bushfires Royal Commission was not kind to the CFA chief officer.

The Commissioners said that on Black Saturday, he did not appear to become actively involved in operational issues, even when the disastrous consequences of the fires began to emerge.

And the final report, due at the end of July, may be even more damning.

Announcing his resignation yesterday, Mr Rees emphasised that he was stepping down so that a new chief officer could implement the Commission’s final recommendations and lead the organisation into the future.

He denied suggestions it was because of any pressure from the CFA or the Victorian Government. It had renewed his contract for two years last year.

On ABC TV’s Stateline program the former chief executive of the CFA, Neil Bibby, spoke about the Royal Commission for the first time.

Neil Bibby says he thinks Mr Rees did a fantastic job on Black Saturday.

“I don’t think people understand what he went through in the day. I have a concern that we’ve come to some sort of witch-hunt and I don’t think that’s the right way to go,” he said.

But Mr Bibby says he does not think that Russell Rees was pushed.

“I think he would have made the decision himself. If he was going to be pushed it would have been a lot earlier than that,” he said.

Calls for merger

The captain of the Arthurs Creek Strathewen CFA brigade, David McGahy, gave dramatic and emotional evidence to the Royal Commission describing how he pleaded for help from CFA command on Black Saturday to no avail.

Twenty-nine people died in the two towns.

Mr McGahy has welcomed Mr Rees’s resignation, but he says he holds no ill-feeling towards him personally.

“I think he’s a decent man. I think he made horrendous mistakes. I think the organisation made horrendous mistakes, but you know, I don’t think vengeance does any of us any good,” he said.

Victoria has three fire services; the CFA, the DSE, which is responsible for public land, and Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

The firefighters union is campaigning for the merging of the CFA and the MFB.

Neil Bibby thinks that all three fire services should be merged, and possibly the State Emergency Service as well.

“All the non law and order need to come together because coordination across those areas needs to be consistent,” he said.

But with 40 years experience as a volunteer, the CFA’s David McGahy thinks a merger of the fire-fighting agencies would be difficult.

“I think the volunteers would find whilst a lot of, or even the majority, of the permanents are good to work with, there is a minority that have no respect for people like myself operationally,” he said.

The Royal Commission’s final report is due in July.

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