Australia — A RIFT between the Rural Fire Service and the Defence Force has placed large areas of land at high risk of fire, an inquiry has heard. The RFS has accused the Defence Force of neglecting its responsibility to keep its training facilities bushfire-safe. However, the RFS has been accused of worrying more about writing reports and shifting blame than ensuring high-risk areas are looked after.
A Defence Force inquiry into an October 16 fire at the Marrangaroo Training Area near Lithgow has exposed confusion, buck-passing and “serious misunderstandings” between the two agencies.
The State Mine fire, which was started by a botched detonation exercise, burnt for almost a month, destroying three homes and 56,000 hectares of bushland.
On Monday, RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers told the inquiry that the Defence Force had attended just two of 16 recent joint bushfire committee meetings for Marrangaroo.
He said the RFS oversaw 22 million hectares of land in NSW and it was up to the primary land owner to ensure their land was bushfire-safe and to request assistance from the RFS if needed.
“There ought to be some better relations and, if I may say so, some better attendance from Defence [at bushfire management meetings],” Commissioner Rogers said, adding that the RFS found bushfire preparation on all Commonwealth land “generally problematic”.
However, Lithgow RFS Superintendent Greg Wardle admitted he knew Marrangaroo was prone to fire, had a vastly inadequate fire-fighting capacity and hadn’t been backburned for almost two decades but he did not think it was the RFS’s job to do anything about it.
A 2011 site assessment by environmental consultancy firm GHD, commissioned by the Defence Force, said the RFS was the primary responder to a fire.
However, Superintendent Wardle said he didn’t sign off on the report and considered the Defence Force to be the first responder.
The Defence Force’s first and only line of response was an “inadequate” Stryker Unit ute with a 500-litre tank and a hose that couldn’t reach the fire.
Two Defence Force sergeants tried to put the fire out with shovels and were almost hit by shrapnel from exploding bombs.
By the time the RFS was called, the fire was out of control and hidden explosives were going off throughout the area.
Plans to conduct hazard reduction burns had either been ignored or never agreed upon. A memorandum of understanding between the two parties was never signed.
The RFS did not have permission to go on site for fire preparation because of unexploded bombs.
In October, the Defence Force apologised for starting the fire during a training exercise.