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This article was published on the ABC News by Thuy Ong and staff – 28 Sep 2015 (click on the logo above to visit the original article)


Featured Image: Burnt out remains of buildings at the Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran. (NSW Rural Fire Service)

The New South Wales deputy coroner has been unable to determine the cause of the massive bushfire that burned in the Warrumbungle National Park in 2013.

The fire started at Wambelong Campground near Coonabarabran in January 2013 and destroyed more than 50 homes, while burning 95 per cent of the National Park.

Tens of thousands of hectares were destroyed and countless native animals and livestock killed.

The inquest previously heard several back-burning fires were lit the day after the blaze began, when a maximum temperature of 40 degrees Celsius and strong winds were predicted.

The blaze was described as a “wildfire Pearl Harbour” by Magistrate Hugh Dillon and while its cause remains a mystery, the deputy coroner found the failures in how it was fought provided valuable lessons.

Mr Dillon made 23 recommendations to the Minister for Emergency Services and Minister for the Environment including improving fire prediction systems, hazard reduction and the early deployment of fire fighting resources.

He also recommended improvements in how the early stages of fighting fires is coordinated and how public alert levels are adjusted.

‘Devastating inferno was unprecedented’

Mr Dillon said there was insufficient evidence to determine where the fire started, although the possibility of three ignition points was raised.

“[A] very thorough and expert investigation was unable to pinpoint the cause and where the fire [initially] occurred,” he said.

Residents affected by the fires also appeared by video link through the Warrumbungle Council Chambers.

The inquiry heard the “devastating inferno” was unprecedented in size and the losses it caused have traumatised those in the community.

The inquiry found that in the week before the fires, conditions were hot and dry with an average maximum temperature of 36.6 degrees.

The Browns Creek area had not been subjected to hazard reduction in 40 years, with uninterrupted growth leading to a high fuel load.

The Wambelong fire was also the first time the station used prediction tools to forecast how big and where the fire might spread.

The incident controllers were told not to rely on the system, but to use their judgement.

“Due to novelty of prediction system, controllers did not fully understand the vulnerabilities in methodologies in extreme conditions or where extreme fires were occurring,” Mr Dillon said.

The court heard fire predictions and maps on the evening of January 12 until 1:00pm the next day were inaccurate – they did not predict potential spot fires of John Renshaw Parkway to the south because of the continuing changes in variables.

“Defining what the predictive tool can or cannot do is especially vital especially in extreme circumstances,” Mr Dillon said.

“The speed of developments can outpace technology designed to keep up with them.”

Trend towards increasingly intense fires

The court also heard there appears to be a continuation of the trend towards increasingly intense fires.

“Climate change is a reality and as a consequence extreme dry and drought advance of bushfire science an applications to fire fighting is a high priority for rural Australia,” Mr Dillon said.

This includes the potential for the vorticity lateral spread phenomenon which occurs with the interaction of winds, fire and terrain that causes fire swirls under certain conditions.

“Experience of firefighters and Emergency Medical Services have been that consistently been surprised by intensity of fires they’re sent to manage,” the deputy coroner said.

Residents hope recommendations are implemented

Stephen Lill, whose cattle business was affected by the fire, told reporters outside the inquest that it should never have happened.

“The recommendations, of course, are very common sense,” Mr Lill said.

“I’m sure they’ll be taken up, hopefully, this time.

“Our previous coroner reports have fallen on deaf ears, and it seems like this one was heading the same way. However, I believe that coroner Dillon has done a very thoughtful job, and hopefully it will bring about a culture of change.”

Others were sceptical about how far the findings could go.

Leonie Tuckwell said she had great respect for the coroner and his team, but she hoped the recommendations would instigate substantial change.

“Hopefully, another community will not have to go through the same thing where you have two government agencies playing politics with one another,” she said.

“National Parks will say this is our fire. It’s not their fire, it’s a fire that needs to put out sooner than later.

“As I said, that’s what we hope, that some of the changes being made will be bought in as proper law for this state, and any other state.”

Deputy NSW Coroner unable to determine cause of Coonabarabran bushfire
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