Officials under fire over Black Saturday

Officials under fire over Black Saturday

15 May 2010

published by

Australia — Victoria’s top officials on Black Saturday failed in key duties, the Bushfires Royal Commission will be told during final submissions.

Counsel assisting the commission is expected to heavily criticise everyone from police, fire officials and political leaders for multiple errors on the state’s darkest day, The Age newspaper reported on Saturday.

A major focus of criticism will be former police chief Christine Nixon, who was called back to the commission for a second appearance after it was revealed she had left the state control to have dinner at a pub with friends minutes after being told the fires could be a disaster and people could die.

Ms Nixon was the state co-ordinator under Victoria’s disaster management plan but left others in charge at 6pm when she went home and to the pub.

The commission is expected to be asked to find Ms Nixon tried to mislead the inquiry by initially concealing that her ability to monitor the blazes during a critical period had been compromised, the newspaper said.

Counsel assisting will argue she failed to seek or receive updates from anyone between 6pm and 9pm.

The inquiry is expected to be told during final submissions that:

– Ms Nixon failed as state co-ordinator by not checking that police had properly overseen community warnings and failed by not checking her deputy was present, on duty and available when she left at 6pm.

– Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron, the top official on Black Saturday, failed in seeking or receiving advice to provide to the premier for consideration on declaring a state of disaster.

– Country Fire Authority chief Russell Rees and his senior officers failed to ensure timely and accurate warnings were issued, especially those related to the wind change that caused the most damage and loss of life; failed to create a proper statewide fire management plan; failed in their supervisory role of incident control centres; and failed to utilise maps that predicted the path of major blazes.

– Ewan Waller, fire chief of the Department of Sustainability and Environment, and two senior officers also failed in issuing warnings, in making a statewide plan and in supervising incident control centres.

– Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner, led by Bruce Esplin, failed by issuing out-of-date and inaccurate fire information.

– Victoria Police in general failed to discharge its responsibilities as an emergency co-ordinator over fire warnings.

The newspaper cites an “informed source” as providing the leaked major arguments in an article written by a journalist who has covered the commission’s hearings extensively and written a book about Black Saturday.

The commission is studying the deaths of 173 people on February 7, 2009.

Final submissions will be held during the last week of May and a final report is expected to be released by July.

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