Australia — An independent inquiry into Tasmania’s January bushfires has heavily criticised the emergency response to the devastating fires, saying lives were probably put at risk.
It has found the fire service failed to send resources to the south-east town of Dunalley, despite having computer modelling showing that the fire would reach the town the next day.
Report author Malcolm Hyde says there was tension and confusion between the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) and Tasmania Police about who was in charge of the response.
He says road closures, evacuations and safety assessments were hindered because the police and fire service did not have a structured approach to dealing with a major emergency.
“Emergencies are not the occasion for disputes or uncertainty about who is in charge of command, control or coordination to occur,” the former South Australian police commissioner wrote.
He found emergency service agencies were poorly prepared and needed improvement.
The lack of a single communications network was found to have impacted on the emergency response.
Most damningly, Mr Hyde revealed the fire service failed to send resources to Dunalley despite new computer modelling.
Dunalley was the worst hit town in January’s emergency. The bushfire destroyed 63 homes, as well as the town’s bakery and primary school.
The inquiry found the TFS did not sufficiently use the information which showed the Forcett fire would flare up and head to Dunalley.
Modelling predicted the night before that fire could reach Dunalley at 3 pm on January 4. It did so by 3.25pm and was considerably larger than predicted.
Mr Hyde says the TFS held off on sending out alerts to residents and the situation probably put lives at risk.
“In this sense it seems to the Inquiry that a simulation indicating a serious consequence ought to be acted upon, though there may be some doubt on the probability of it occurring”.
“No proactive action was taken to pre-deploy fire resources on the Tasman or Forestier Peninsulas, or initiate different measures to warn people of risk.”
The Fire Chief, Mike Brown, says computer modelling can be wildly inaccurate at times and should not be used as the basis for warnings.
“We’re more reliant on the information that we’re going to get from the field and we’ve got to be very careful about using fire modelling for influencing warnings, particularly when it’s so far out,” he said.
“For us to over-warn or to warn on an incident that doesn’t occur can cause all sorts of problems in people, reducing their confidence in our warning systems.”
The police service is also challenging some of the findings.
The Police Commissioner, Darren Hine, says he does not believe the bushfire response was hindered by tensions with the fire service.
“During any emergency situation there is going to be confusion and there are going to be communication issues,” said Mr Hine.
“The report has highlighted some of those things we do need to clarify, we don’t walk away from the recommendations, we have to work through them.
There is always go to be confusion and communication issues, but did it affect the overall response? I don’t think it did.”
The State Government has accepted the report’s 103 recommendations.
Mr Hyde has implored the Government to commit resources to fixing the issues, saying many of the problems from this year’s bushfire response are the result of not making such a commitment in the past.
Four bushfires from January 3 to 5 destroyed more than 400 properties, 200 of them residential.
No lives were lost but the damage bill was more than $70 million.
Mr Hyde’s report also identified expanded fuel reduction burns as a high priority.
It found the delay in implementing an effective fuel reduction burning program in Tasmania was disappointing.
The inquiry has recommended a strategic fuel management plan be developed with measurable targets which are monitored and reported.
The State Government has allocated $1.5 million to immediately implement 30 recommendations of the review.
They will include ensuring the fuel management plan is completed in a “timely fashion” and helping landowners manage fuel reduction burns on private property.
‘Warts and all’ inquiry
Premier Lara Giddings says the report was about finding ways to improve and not about apportioning blame.
“When my Government commissioned this inquiry we wanted a ‘warts and all’ investigation and that’s what we’ve got,” she said.
“Now we’ve received the report we’re committed to acting on it’s recommendations.
“The chaos and confusion of the moment meant there were conflicting views and perceptions about some of the events that took place.
“This report is about learning not blame.”
The report found the fire in Forcett probably began from a campfire in an old tree stump which had been lit on December 28.
It was thought to have been extinguished after being covered by dirt and water, but resurfaced on January 3.
The Premier says crews were there within 30 minutes but it was not feasible for the fire to be suppressed with the resources available.
The inquiry received more than 100 submissions and interviewed 117 people.
Mr Hyde was given six months to investigate the response but there were no public hearings.