Australia — Premier Colin Barnett has immediately suspended all prescribed burns within 5km of residential area after an independent review into last years Margaret River blaze found a series of mistakes were made that led to 40 properties being destroyed.
Former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty’s report details serious shortcomings in the planning and implementation of the Department of Environment and Conservation’s prescribed burn that started in September and crossed containment lines on November 24.
However he did not call for any action to be taken against individuals.
The bushfire destroyed 34 homes and nine holiday chalets,and damaged another 22 buildings in Kilcarnup, Wallcliffe, Gnarabup, Prevelly and Redgate. It burnt 3400ha from Gracetown to Redgate beach.
DEC denied culpability despite the fact it added fuel to the burn on November 21 and 22 despite extreme weather forecasts.
The inquiry found DEC did not seek ‘spot forecasts’ relevant to the burning area despite more wind speeds than forecast by the Bureau of Meteorology and witnesses observing high risk fire conditions.
“With the benefit of hindsight, planning and operational decisions did not adequately take into account the forecast weather conditions for November 23, 2011,” the report says.
DEC also did not full consider the risk of re-ignition through a flare-up or an escape of the fire, and the fuel assessments undertaken in 2006 were based on an area half of the actual ignited area.
In a startling revelation, a spotter pilot reported seeing smoke in the south western corner of the Ellenbrook Block and reported it as a matter of “high concern” but DEC interpreted and recorded the message as “no concerns” and did not deploy any resources to check the ground.
The Department also failed to provide resources to monitor the prescribed burn overnight.
“A delay in recognising the seriousness of the problem caused a delay in the engagement of the resources to deal with it, including the local bush fire brigades, many of whom attended the fire of their own accord,” the report says.
Mr Keelty also found the constant turnover of staff, excess working hours and long driving distances between centres and areas of operation during prescribed burns may also have “a detrimental effect on the judgment and performance of some DEC staff”.
He recommended the Department undertake an immediate review of its risk management practices and consider alternatives to burning, as well as improving succession planning, methods to better attract and retain staff and salary levels.
The use of volunteer bush fire brigades, particularly as a source of local knowledge, also should be improved.
After tabling the report in State Parliament today, Mr Barnett said the government would implement all of Mr Keeltys 10 recommendations.
As well as immediately suspending prescribed burns close to residential areas, any level three bush fire the most serious would automatically be under the control of the Fire and Emergency Services Authority rather than the DEC.
Changes to fire districts would be made before next summer and a south west bushfire risk office would be declared, attached to FESA, to oversee authority of all prescribed burns.
Improved access to some residential areas would also be looked at, after many Margaret River residents were blocked from evacuating because the fire front crossed their only road access.
An urgent review of DEC’s risk management practices would be a priority.
“The systemic failures that Mr Keelty has brought to our attention were unacceptable,” Mr Barnett said.
“[Mr Keelty found] serious shortcomings and errors in the planning and conduct of the prescribed burn. There are [also] serious concerns about the governance and risk management procediures applied by DEC more broadly.”