Australia — South Australian Emergency Services Minister Tony Piccolo has rejected claims he “played tourist” during January’s Sampson Flat bushfires by diverting Country Fire Service (CFS)resources for an official visit to the fire ground while it was still uncontrolled.
The State Opposition and the CFS Volunteers’ Association questioned if Mr Piccoloredirected resources to clear roads for a VIP visit and photo opportunity on Monday, January 5 – four days after the fire broke out.
Pockets of the fire were still uncontrolled at the time, but roads were being reopened, some people were returning to their homes, and specialist teams were assessing areas damaged by the fire.
It flared to its most dangerous state on the Saturday beforehand and finally burnt 12,500 hectares and destroyed 27 houses within a 240 kilometre perimeter.
“The assertion that I would somehow knowingly ask resources to be redirected from the fire effort is denied 100 per cent,” Mr Piccolo said.
“I did not in any way ask for resources to be redirected to look after me.
“I’d further like to ask some people to apologise for the comments they’ve made to me.”
CFS chief officer Greg Nettleton said the ministerial visit was not a publicity stunt, but organised by the CFS as an important briefing.
Jeff Clark from theCFS Volunteers’ Association, which has been heavily critical of the Government since it increased the Emergency Services Levy last year and proposed a merger of emergency services structures, said he got “numerous” complaints from volunteers about the situation.
He said volunteers were told to destroy paperwork, were not allowed to use their radios to coordinate the visit, and were “exceedingly upset about what happened”.
Mr Clark questioned why the visit was conducted like a “covert operation”.
“Why, if everyone was comfortable with this, did everything have to be kept on the low down?” he said.
Opposition emergency services spokesperson Duncan McFetridge claimed Mr Piccolo took up to 30 firefighters away from the “frontline fire” along with five fire trucks.
“Here we see the Minister playing tourist,” he said.
“If Tony Piccolo did not realise that [it]… was the wrong thing to do, then he’s clearly out of his depth.”
Mr Piccolo welcomed an inquiry and offered to help organise it.