Australia — Premier Colin Barnett has apologised to people whose homes were destroyed in the Margaret River bushfires after the Keelty report identified a series of omissions and mistakes by the Department of Environment and Conservation in its planning and implementation of its prescribed burning program.
Forty properties were destroyed in November last year when two DEC prescribed burns, at Ellensbrook and Prevelly, got out of control.
Mr Barnett, tabling the Keelty report in State Parliament this morning, said the fire that devastated swathes of Margaret Rivers iconic coastline stunned and dismayed West Australians.
These feelings were intensified by the knowledge that the fire arose from a prescribed burn being undertaken by the DEC, a burn that was planned and implemented with the intention of protecting the very communities that fell under the path of the bushfire.
Mr Keelty found that prescribed burning was a complex task and despite exhaustive planning, the implementation of the prescribed burn did not fully take into account the risks associated with re-ignition of the prescribed burn through a flare-up and escape of the fire”.
With the benefit of hindsight, planning and operational decisions did not adequately take into account the forecast weather conditions for 23 November, 2011, the report said.
The Premier said that Environment Minister Bill Marmion has today directed DEC to temporarily suspend further burns within 5km of town sites and rural subdivisions until a complete risk assessment is undertaken.
There were no findings of misconduct or breach of discipline and no single person or group of people were to blame.
The Keelty report makes 10 recommendations, including that DEC review its operations policies, guidelines and risk management practices as they relate to prescribed burns.
The report also recommends the internal review into how the bushfire was managed be independently reviewed.
Mr Barnett told Parliament prescribed burns were undertaken to improve community safety and would continue.
There have been some calls to cease the States prescribed burning program in response to the Margaret River fire. This will not occur, and Mr Keeltys report provides no basis to do so, he said.
The report confirms the detailed process of planning that DEC undertakes in performing prescribed burns and the many and varying factors that must be assessed.
Notwithstanding this, this planning has been shown to be inadequate in relation to this fire.
Mr Keelty has identified serious shortcomings in DECs planning and implementation of its prescribed burns, and this burn in particular.
The report does not reveal or highlight a particular cause of the fire. Rather, it has unearthed a series of omissions and mistakes that, in combination, have resulted in inadequate identification of risks and inadequate and unacceptable management of those risks.
Margaret River fire fury at historic Wallcliffe homestead. Picture: Seven News
DEC and the Government accept full responsibility for the mistakes and errors that were made.
As Premier, I apologise to all of those people whose homes or property were lost of damaged by the fire.
Last week Mr Keelty said others could judge whether the report’s conclusions were as damning as the one he prepared following the Perth Hills fires in February last year.
After tabling the Keelty report Mr Barnett outlined the Governments response to the inquiry, whose findings and recommendations it accepted in their entirety.
Mr Barnett announced a financial assistance scheme for victims of up to $190,000 for uninsured losses. Assistance would not prevent victims from taking legal action if they chose to do so.
The Government will establish a new Office of Bushfire Risk Management, which will be responsible for signing off on all DEC prescribed burn plans.
The new office will report directly to Fire and Emergency Services Authority chief executive Wayne Gregson in a bid to ensure proposed burns are independently scrutinised.
The new office has the authority to direct, subject to specific criteria, that any prescribed burn not occur or be delayed if risks are seen as too great, Mr Barnett said.
Any level 3 bushfire, defined as a complex fire in which life and property are at risk, will automatically fall under the overall control of Mr Gregson.
This did not mean FESA would automatically become the incident controller, but Mr Gregson would have the authority to direct the firefighting response.
New fire districts will be gazetted in the South West, and the Bunbury district will expanded to include Eaton and outer urban areas currently outside city boundaries.
New access roads will be urgently considered for Prevelly, Yallingup, Gracetown and the College Grove area after the Keelty report uncovered concerns that there were limited avenues for escape in these areas in the event of a serious bushfire.
Mick Keelty arrives in Margaret River to address a community meeting today. Picture: Nic Ellis/The West Australian
Opposition Leader Mark McGowan criticised Mr Barnett for refusing to tell Parliament if requests by fire fighting agencies for more resources had been made and called on the Government to fully compensate people who had suffered property damage, rather than forcing them to recover damages through the courts.
Mr McGowan also noted there had been five reports and inquiries into bushfire readiness and management since the Barnett Government came to power and the Government did not appear to be learning from them.
You need to come clean on whether those departments were adequately resourced, Mr McGowan said.
Orchid Ramble resident Tony Bryne, who lost his home on the first day of the blaze, said the report appeared to confirm what was common knowledge among Margaret River residents. “It’s probably about right isn’t it and what we all knew, they lit too much fire and lost control,” he said.
But he remained sceptical as to whether Mr Keelty’s report would lead to lasting change.
“In the last report didn’t he make about 56 recommendations and they only five or six have been put in place?
“There might be two or three put in place from this. Only time will tell.”
Augusta Margaret River shire president Ray Colyer welcomed the scheme to give up to $190,000 to residents for uninsured losses.
“I was hoping that initiative would be put in place,” he said.
Mr Colyer said he was yet to scrutinise each recommendation and the report would be formally considered by the council.