Coonabarabran fallout fuels fiery debate.
By Alex Druce – 30 July 2015
Bushfire mitigation is lost in the smoke of backward looking reports and inquiries, and researchers warn we are missing out on key lessons for the future.
NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott is due to respond to the Coonabarabran (Wambelong) fire inquiry by August 20, but agricultural bodies, fire service groups, and academics are split on how the state government should best apply the recommendations.
Mr Elliott came under scrutiny last week after footage of comments he made in May at the Rural Fire Service Association Conference were seen to be undermining the inquiry.
The parliamentary inquiry into the Coonabarabran blaze – chaired by upper house Shooters and Fishers MP Robert Brown and finalised in February – called for the government to ensure the NSW Rural Fire Service had greater disaster response control, while also suggesting a review of communication systems, and the ability for rapid aerial response teams to work at night.
The January 2013 fire scorched 56,000 hectares, burned more than 50 homes killing thousands of livestock, and injuring 28 fire fighters as it burned for 41 days in and around the Warrumbungle National Park.
NSW Farmers championed the recommendations from the inquiry into the Coonabarabran blaze at its annual conference this month, while the Rural Fire Service Association (which represents 36,000 paid and volunteer members) was disappointed at the suggestion volunteers were not represented in government fire fighting decision making.
Mr Brown said the state government’s impending response was a chance to “get it right” after previous ineffective reports in NSW and the ACT.
“It would have been good, had various jurisdictions throughout the country taken note of various reports over the years. But they hadn’t,” Mr Brown said.
A general parliamentary inquiry was made into the NSW Rural Fire Service in 2000, and another into the Christmas 2001-02 bushfires around Sydney, while the ACT government’s McLeod inquiry examined the catastrophic Canberra fires of 2003.
University of Sydney senior lecturer Dr Tina Bell acknowledged the inquiries offered similar lessons in fire preparedness and communications, but rejected the notion they were a waste of time.
Dr Bell, a research leader with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, said the reviews offered an opportunity to gain better funding and policy attention for fire management.
If (reviews) bring (bushfires) back into politicians’ spotlight, the public spotlight, the research spotlight… then that’s got to be a good thing,” Dr Bell said.
“It’s human nature for us to gradually forget (the problems) after a fire. “Then the next year comes and there’s more fires.
“What doesn’t come up is the call for more research and more money for research.” Australian National University associate professor Dr Michael Eburn, whose expertise is in the law of emergency management, said most fire inquiries were, unfortunately, retrospective.
“Part of it is political pressure. If a fire burns out a lot of people, the government can’t just sit there and say ‘the fire service did a great job’. There has to be an inquiry,” he said.
“They come up with recommendations about what should have been done about the particular fire, but the next fire won’t have read the rules.
“To use the military analogy, you’re preparing to fight the last war.”
Dr Eburn, who is researching better methods for fire review with the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre, said inquiries could teach valuable lessons, but they could also create adversarial ‘fact finding’ missions that apportion blame.
“You don’t want rigid recommendations – specific hazard reduction targets or a certain amount of ground fuel reduced – (because you) end up with a compliance culture,” he said.
“(We’ve got to) try and find a better way so agencies and firefighters can openly acknowledge areas of improvement without fear of blame, or retribution.
“We run in a world where if you say ‘I don’t think that was the right thing to do’, then suddenly someone will hang on that.”
A coronial inquest into the Wambelong fire will be re-examined in the NSW Coroners’ Court in October.