Australia — THE ACT Supreme Court has rejected compensation claims by two property owners who sued the NSW government for damage caused by Canberra’s disastrous 2003 bushfire.
The bushfire started in both NSW and the ACT and on January 18 swept into Canberra, killing four people and injuring 435 others.
It destroyed 487 homes and 23 commercial and government premises.
The cases were launched by Wayne and Lesley West and the company Electro Optic Systems, whose properties were devastated in the fire.
Both plaintiffs alleged negligence by members of the NSW Rural Fire Service and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service in failing to control the fire, referred to as the McIntyres Hut fire, which started in NSW and burnt into the ACT.
Justice Terrence Higgins found NSW fire authorities breached their statutory duty of care but state legislation exempted them from liability for any act done in good faith while performing their duties.
“But for the express limitations on the liability which otherwise would attach at common law, those plaintiffs who suffered loss and damage would have been entitled to compensation for their losses,” he said in his judgment.
Justice Higgins believed it was beyond doubt that the McIntyres Hut fire escaping to the east and west caused the destruction complained by the plaintiffs.
He said the fire could have been contained by various means including backburning and that was a serious strategic error.
“It was apparent … that if the fire crossed the (Goodradigbee) river under the anticipated adverse weather conditions, there was a substantial risk of damage to life and property on the western side of the river and then south toward the ACT and Canberra,” Justice Higgins said. The failure was in the forest areas.Advertisement
Following a 10-year strategy, ACT fire managers have created a mosaic across the landscape of different fuel levels, burning at every opportunity.
But forests have been too wet to burn this spring and the past two summers.
A network of 500 fire trails and strategic burns along the north-west urban edge, heavy grazing and extra grass slashing will create a fortress for the territory which forecasters say faces a higher than average risk this summer.
After a fire-fuelled tornado in January 2003 killed four Canberrans and frightened thousands more, CSIRO fire expert Phil Cheney told the subsequent inquiry the fire’s penetration into urban areas under extreme conditions did not reflect a failure of fuel management on the urban interface.