Australia — The response to the 2013 “Black Sunday” bushfires that destroyed scores of homes in northern NSW was marred by communication breakdowns, mistaken predictions by fire analysts, and local residents being given incorrect information, an inquest has heard.
The Wambelong fire destroyed 53 homes and tens of thousands of hectares on January 13, 2013 when it was sparked in the Warrumbungle National Park, near Coonabarabran.
There were also massive losses of livestock and wildlife.
The NSW Coroner’s Court heard that at a crucial point on January 13 after the fire had jumped containment lines, the Rural Fire Service’s Incident Management Team put out a situation report which placed the blaze in a far less serious category than it actually was.
The result of this error was that, rather than being warned the fire was heading toward their homes and told to evacuate, local residents were simply advised to “monitor conditions in your area” then “check and follow your bushfire survival plan”.
The head of the RFS response on January 13, Superintendent Allyn Purkiss conceded it was “completely inappropriate” for this warning to have been sent out.
“Can you explain why that entirely inappropriate and misleading information was entered into this sit rep?” counsel representing the residents of Coonabarabran, asked
“That information auto-populated – that was a failure in our brief to enter the correct matrix,” Superintendent Purkiss replied.
The inquest heard this error was corrected when another situation report was issued soon after.
The inquest also heard fire crews brought in from outside the area to fight the blazes had been highly critical of how the firefighting effort was organised, telling a town hall meeting it had been “one of the worst large scale fire fighting efforts they had been involved in”.
In particular, they said there was a lack of communication between those in charge of the response and the crews heading out to the fire ground.
Superintendent Purkiss, conceded in the Coroner’s Court that fire fighters on the ground had not done what he required them to do because of the communication breakdown.
However, he said the problem had arisen because some of the crews had failed to attend morning briefings at the Coonabarabran Showground.
When asked what could be learnt from this, Superintendent Purkiss said: “Possibly, if they can’t attend the morning briefing they can’t attend the fire ground.”
The response to the fire was also affected by mistaken predictions about how the various blazes would behave on January 13.
Inspector Laurence McCoy, the senior fire behaviour analyst on duty, predicted the fire would head in a northerly direction, and any movement toward homes in the south-east would be halted by a major road, the John Renshaw Parkway.
But 35 to 40km/h winds coming through at midday on January 13, drove the flames to the south-east, over the road, and on a rapid run through dozens of homes and thousands of hectares of farmland.
“We made the assumption that the suppression measures on site were sufficient to stop crossing the John Renshaw Parkway,” Inspector McCoy said, adding his prediction was based on computer modelling programs used by the RFS.