Premier denies fire ‘scapegoat’ claims

Premier denies fire ‘scapegoat’ claims

30 November 2011

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Australia — West Australian Premier Colin Barnett has denied a senior public servant is taking the fall for Environment Minister Bill Marmion over the Margaret River bushfire.

Department of Environment and Conservation district manager Brad Commins was among those who approved the prescribed burn that got out of control and destroyed more than 40 homes in WA’s southwest this week.

He has been stood aside pending an independent inquiry into the fire.
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On Tuesday, Mr Marmion said he would be concerned if Mr Commins was not stood aside.

Mr Commins had previously been criticised by the WA coroner over his management of the 2007 Coolgardie bushfire that resulted in three deaths and led him to voluntarily step down.

But Mr Commins was reinstated by department director-general Keiran McNamara in 2009 after an independent inquiry cleared him of blame.

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr McNamara said he had decided to move Mr Commins out of operational duties “for his own welfare and in the interests of the department”.

Mr Barnett on Wednesday denied Mr Commins was being made a scapegoat for his minister, who is in charge of the department that started the fire.

“I can understand a degree of anger by those who have lost property and their homes, but I think it’s important that a fire of this scale be properly and thoroughly investigated,” Mr Barnett told Fairfax radio in Perth.

“I imagine (Mr Commins) is coming under a great deal of public pressure and people are assuming that he made mistakes – I don’t know if he did.

“It’s probably easier for the moment just to take him away from the operational side.”

Mr Barnett said an investigation into the fire would be launched “as soon as possible”.

“It will be a fairly short and sharp affair, but it will be independent, it will be thorough and the results will be made public.”

Mr Barnett avoided the question of culpability, saying it was too early to know if the government would be forced to pay millions in compensation.

But he acknowledged it was a government department in charge of the burn that flared out of control on government land.

“We’re not steering away from that, or denying that, but we need to get to the facts,” Mr Barnett said.

Meanwhile, the Conservation Council of WA (CCWA) has called on the government to halt all prescribed burns until the inquiry is complete.

“Limited, carefully controlled prescribed burning in strategic areas plays an important role in managing fire risk, but it has to be done properly,” CCWA director Piers Verstegen said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Instead, the DEC’s prescribed burning program relies on firebombing vast areas of bushland with incendiary devices dropped from aircraft.

“The resulting fires are huge, unpredictable and difficult to contain.

“The inquiry must investigate all of the recent prescribed burn escapes, including the impacts of these burns on our native plants and animals, as well as the risks they have presented to southwest communities.”

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