Australia — The Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission into the February 7 fires has been released.
The final report includes findings and recommendations on the Bendigo and Redesdale fires.
In regards to the Bendigo and Eaglehawk fires, the report indicates –
Management in CFA Region 2 did not plan adequately for the possibility of more than one major fire in the region.
When the second fire did break out on the outskirts of Bendigo, facilities and the personnel available to manage the incident were inadequate. Qualified staff were concentrated at the Epsom ICC and the Adam Street ICC facilities were unsatisfactory.
The latter ICC was largely disconnected from the Bendigo fire response, particularly in the crucial hours before and immediately after the wind change.
Despite this, credit is due to the firefighters who responded to the Bendigo fire: they were able to respond operationally to fighting the fire, establish a working incident management structure, and deploy resources effectively.
They did this in circumstances in which radio communications were poor, which could explain why many people at the fire ground were unaware of the Adam Street ICC until so late in the day.
The almost total breakdown in radio communication between the fire ground and the Adam Street ICC was an important feature of the Bendigo fire.
Mr Gilmore gave evidence of repeated unsuccessful attempts to contact the CFA field commanders using the CFA radio. Mr Wilkie of DSE experienced similar radio communication problems from the fire ground, which suggests that it was not only the CFA’s radio system that was struggling.
Witnesses attributed these problems to a number of causes, among them heat and smoke and the inadequate facilities at the Adam Street ICC.
An inter-agency initiative that did work well, though, was the allocation of a police member to each of the sector commanders for the Bendigo fire. This was arranged through the MECC during the evening of 7 February. The arrangement proved mutually beneficial: the police were able to help the sector commanders deal with small concerns before they became big problems, and their presence in the sector commanders’ vehicles meant they had access to good information about the fire situation.
The Redesdale report meanwhile concluded the following –
The efficient way in which information was gathered and shared by the incident management team enabled assessment of communities at risk, prompt preparation and distribution of informative warnings, and the setting up of appropriate road closures.
Most crucially, it allowed the IMT to develop the firefighting strategy, which involved a concentrated effort to secure the north-eastern flank before the wind change, thus improving the protection of the Redesdale, Mia Mia and Heathcote communities further to the north-east.
This approach was finalised within an hour of the Epsom ICC assuming control of the incident and was effectively implemented in the two hours before the wind change arrived.
In the Commission’s view, the Epsom IMT’s effective management of the Redesdale fire is testament to good planning and agency cooperation in the lead-up to a day of extreme fire danger, in particular pre-positioning properly qualified and experienced staff in an IMT.
It also highlights the value of focusing on gathering and sharing information within the IMT, between fire agencies and with the public.
Fire agencies’ response to the Redesdale fire was, however, impeded by communication difficulties. Radio communications between Redesdale divisional command and the fire ground were poor.
Mobile telephone communications were intermittent, and ground observers were unable to transmit information electronically via broadband internet connection. At times Mr Brittain was unable to make contact with sector commanders, and it was necessary to bring them to the operations point at Redesdale for briefings.
Mr Brittain attributed these difficulties to various causes, among them the topography of the area, heat and smoke, and radio black spots.
Members of Victoria Police responding to the Redesdale fire also had problems with radio communications. Although they appear to have had better radio reception than CFA members, their communications were impeded by the high volume of radio traffic directed through the police communications network, D24.
The Commission heard evidence that Mount Alexander and Macedon Ranges Shires provided a great deal of support, considering that Greater Bendigo and Mitchell Shires were fully occupied with other fires in their municipalities. The detail of the emergency response within the Mount Alexander and Macedon Ranges Shires is, however, largely unknown because no statements were provided to the Commission for the Municipal Emergency Response Coordinator and Municipal Emergency Resource Officers for those municipalities.