Fire inquiry hears of exploding ordnance

Fire inquiry hears of exploding ordnance

09 December 2013

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Australia — Recommendations for hazard reduction burning were ignored by the department of defence at a training ground where a botched explosives exercise started a bushfire which destroyed homes in the Blue Mountains.

The exercise at the Marrangaroo Training Area near Lithgow set off unexploded ordnance on October 16 and grew into the massive fire that burned for more than a month, a commission of inquiry has heard.

The inquiry on Monday heard details of explosives going off, endangering Defence firefighters, and embarrassingly inadequate preparation by the Defence Force.

A Rural Fire Service investigation was satisfied the training exercise caused the fire, which became known as the State Mine fire.

Defence has apologised for sparking the blaze.

Senior counsel assisting the inquiry, Lieutenant Colonel David Jordan, told the hearing the fire became a significant danger to Defence members after it was caused by a botched explosive ordnance training exercise.

Defence personnel tried to put the blaze out with shovels and some were almost hit by shrapnel from explosives.

“This was not exactly a safe method of operation,” Lt Colonel Jordan said during his opening statement.

“There was a lot of unexploded ordnance.

“It became exploded as the fire passed through.”

The unexploded ordnance made it too dangerous for firefighters to get close to the blaze and it was not declared extinguished until November 20.

Lt Colonel Jordan said detonations were banned when there was a “very high” fire rating and on that particular day it was “high” in Lithgow.

But a “very high” rating was in place in the greater Sydney area, including the nearby Blue Mountains.

The inquiry also heard that a report by consultants GHD in 2011 found the area was at risk of a bushfire.

Hazard reduction hadn’t taken place at the site for almost 20 years despite a Rural Fire Service (RFS) recommendation two years earlier to have it done.

Lt Colonel Jordan also discussed the “inadequate” firefighting capability on the base.

After the fire started, a hose used by Defence personnel was not long enough to reach it.

Wing Commander Paul Anthony Muscat, who was in charge of the training school, said the explosives training exercise was considered low risk.

“Low risk doesn’t mean no risk,” he told the hearing.

“It’s not negligent. It’s just [that] we couldn’t fight the fire … We just need to make sure we don’t have this happen again.”

The inquiry will investigate whether the fire caused injury to any person at the training area, whether it damaged property and the qualifications and experience of the Defence people involved in fighting the fire.

The fire burnt through 50,000 hectares and destroyed five homes and seven other structures in the Lithgow area.

The inquiry before former Sydney judge John O’Meally continues on Tuesday.

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