Adelaide hills bushfire

Adelaide Hills bushfire – Country Fire Service defends how it handled Cherryville blaze

13 May 2013

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Australia — The state Liberal Party today called for an inquiry into the Cherryville blaze, which destroyed a house and two sheds when a private bonfire flared out of control on Thursday.

CFS chief officer Greg Nettleton has defended the handling of the fire, including the use of water bombing aircraft and a decision not to extend the fire danger season or place a total fire ban on the Adelaide Hills on Thursday.

He said he did not believe a parliamentary inquiry was necessary and, as with all major events, the CFS would review the incident.

“That’s a decision for the Parliament to make and whatever decision the Parliament makes we will abide by the requirements,” he said.

“I don’t think (it’s necessary). I think there are mechanisms in place (such as) the after-action reviews.

“We also have the state bushfire co-ordination committee. It looks at bushfire policy and makes recommendations to the Minister.

“That may well be a task for them to look at some of the policies in relation to bushfire management.”

Mr Nettleton denied any mistakes were made in the decision to not use water bombers until late Friday morning.

“I don’t believe it was a mistake but that will be one of the areas we will be looking at is the arrangements for our call when needed aircraft,” he said.

“If the bombers had been used (on Thursday) they would have been of limited advantage to us.

“They did an effective job on property protection activities during the day on Friday and Saturday.”

Mr Nettleton also said that despite the fire, the right calls had been made regarding the length of the fire danger season and the decision to not impose a total fire ban in the Adelaide Hills on Thursday.

“In this case, particularly on Thursday, if you look at the observations for the weather, the fire danger rating for that part of the Hills was high or very high,” he said.

“In that case it’s no different to a Spring or Autumn day.

“The conditions that presented were sufficient for the fire danger season to cease on April 30.”

Landholders can burn freely and lawfully without conditions outside of the fire danger season if a total fire ban is not imposed.

“In the case of the Cherryville fire, we had no cause to put the fire ban in the Hills,” Mr Nettleton said.

“The fire danger index for the Hills on the day wouldn’t have given us justification to put a fire ban on.”

Mr Nettleton flagged changes to burnoff requirements outside of the fire danger season to prevent such incidents occurring again.

“During the fire danger season, when permits are issued to landowners we are notified,” he said.

The Cherryville bushfire lights the night in this shot taken by Edwin Michell from Marble Hill. Sent through NewsForce
“Outside the fire danger season if permits were to be introduced to be issued, that’s something we are looking at at the moment.

“If people want to burn off outside the fire danger period there might be some notification mechanism.”

Mr Nettleton said two firefighters were injured while battling the blaze. One was treated at the scene for minor smoke inhalation and a second was taken to hospital with a scratched eye and later discharged.

Premier Jay Weatherill today said he was willing to consider backing an independent or political inquiry into the fire, but the response should first be reviewed by experts in the field including senior CFS officers.

Mr Weatherill today praised firefighters who battled the two-day blaze that destroyed a house and shed.

He said it was the “ordinary course” for responses to major fires to be reviewed at local and regional levels.

The State Bushfire Coordination Committee included senior figures in firefighting, police, transport, agriculture, weather, local government, conservation and other officials.

It advises the government on bushfire management and review effectiveness of state-wide plans.

Mr Weatherill said it was “too early to say” if anything went wrong at Cherryville.

“One thing we can take from the fire is it just demonstrates to the South Australian community that we need to be vigilant all year round,” he said. “It’s a wake up call for all South Australians.

“There is always a need to consider vegetation around house(s), to make sure bushfire survival plans are in place, that people routinely consult them and discuss it with their families.

“There’s a whole range of things we need to be vigilant and attend to.

“This is a reminder of how serious the risks are and they can present themselves at different times of the year.”

Mr Weatherill said firefighters recommended against “ad hoc” inquiries and the “due process” of a State Bushfire Coordination Committee review should be followed.

“I think it is proper, after those reviews are undertaken, if various committees of the Parliament want to inform themselves … if they wish to be briefed on this matter, I think that’s a proper thing to happen,” he said.

Family First MP Rob Brokenshire said there should be a completely independent review.

“We need answers as soon as possible that are credible, without spin, and fully transparent to the public on what happened at Cherryville and how we can learn from any errors identified on this occasion,” he said.

With the fire now under control, questions have been raised about why a controlled burn was allowed under dangerous conditions and how it was fought. It destroyed a house and shed.

Earlier today Opposition leader Steven Marshall said the party would push in the Upper House tomorrow for the matter to be referred to the Environment, Resources and Development Committee for immediate investigation.

He said it must examine how the fire ignited, response from water bombers, the length and regulations around designated fire seasons and the “communication of emergency response”.

“We need to understand how we can better deal with situations like these going forward, particularly in the heat of summer,” Mr Marshall said today.

Adelaide Hills townships near the fire are assessing the damage but residents said there had been no talk of legal action against the Cherryville resident who lit a bonfire to burn some vegetation.

There are no laws prohibiting bonfires to be lit out of the fire season in the Adelaide Hills.

Many landowners use bonfires to get rid of branches and other vegetation collected during the fire season when cleaning up their properties.

Cherryville residents Chris and Glyn Rippin, who are building their dream home next door to where the fire began, labelled the blaze a tragic accident.

“This could have happened to any Hills dweller,” Mr Rippin said. “He’s really distraught over the whole thing, especially for the poor people who lost their home.”

Another resident said the community was “very concerned for him and his wife, who is terribly upset”.

The fire began as a bonfire on a small Cherryville property on Thursday, 10 days after the end of the fire danger season.

Adelaide Hills Council does not require a permit or notification of burn-offs or bonfires on rural properties outside the fire danger period, from December 1 to April 30.

Class action lawyer Peter Humphries said people conducting legal burn-offs were not totally protected from legal action if the fire became an out-of-control blaze.

Some residents spoken to by The Advertiser said they were unaware if legal action could or would even be considered by those affected by the fire.

Mr Humphries said even with a permit, or burning outside the fire danger season, a person could be liable if they had been negligent.

“People just can’t burn with gay abandon; they must take all the precautions necessary such as firefighting equipment,” he said.

“The normal standards of duty of care would apply in this case, especially on a really hot day.”

The man believed to have started the fire was not at his Cherryville property when The Advertiser visited yesterday afternoon.

Basket Range resident Phil Broderick said the larger community may not know that the fire was accidental.

“The people of Cherryville, they know this fella – it’s an accident,” he said.

“But if you don’t know that or think it’s someone being reckless it would make people angry.”

James Rippin and his family said the incident could happen to anyone and that fires were an unfortunate part of living in the Hills.

“I don’t think anyone’s got any malice towards him though – it could happen to anyone,” he said.

But Cherryville resident Roy Fitzhenry said Thursday’s burn-off was reckless, given the weather conditions.

“The temperature was too high and the wind was too great,” he said.

A Country Fire Service spokesman said yesterday an investigation into the cause of the fire was continuing and a briefing would be held this morning.

The State Government confirmed plans to review the existing burn-off policy.

Plans include the possibility of extending the fire ban season beyond April to limit burn-offs and avoid a repeat of the Cherryville bushfire.

More than 250 firefighters and four aerial water bombers tackled the blaze, which also destroyed two sheds. About 10mm of rain and cooler conditions today also helped.

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