Inquiry into the fire at the Wambelong Camp Ground – Coroners Findings

On the 28th September 2015, the NSW Deputy State Coroner made the following recommendations to the Minister for Emergency Services.

The findings and recommendations have not been well received by all persons. Feel free to add your comments to this article. We will publish any sensible feedback.

Warrumbungles-findings-final-28-08-15.pdf (277 downloads)


The following statement appears in the findings:

I find that the fire that broke out at the Wambelong Camp Ground on 12 January 2013 probably originated to the west of the camping ground on one of the banks of the Wambelong Creek. The evidence does not enable me to determine the cause of the fire.

Recommendations to the Minister for Emergency Services

1. That the Rural Fire Service consider proposing an arrangement with the Bureau of Meteorology to deploy weather balloons specifically for the purpose of assessing atmospheric instability during periods of severe to catastrophic fire danger in locations most likely to be severely affected, for example, areas in which a very high C-Haines index reading is registered and local fires have been identified.

2. Alternatively, I recommend that the RFS consider developing such capacity to deploy weather balloons itself, in conjunction with mobile weather stations, for this purpose.

3. That the Rural Fire Service consider redrafting the disclaimer in its fire predictions to make abundantly clear where the potential errors or omissions may affect the prediction and how to detect them if they are there (for example, by comparing them with linescans) and what other factors (such as VLS) may affect the predictions and in what way.

4. That the Rural Fire Service consider amending its fire prediction reports to include a checklist of significant factors that have not been able to be considered in the prediction model and a warning to be alert for them and seek intelligence on them from fire ground managers.

5. That in Class 3 fire-fighting operations, the Rural Fire Service consider including a fire behaviour analyst in the incident management team if feasible.

6. That the Rural Fire Service consider extending pre-emptive section 44 to whole of Castlereagh RFS/Warrumbungle Shire area.

7. That the Rural Fire Service together with other land managers develop a program whereby local stakeholders come together regularly (every 2 months during non-fire season and monthly during the fire season) to share intelligence and to consider hazard and incident management measures for implementation.

Recommendations to the Minister for Emergency Services and the Minister for the Environment

8. That the Rural Fire Service and National Parks and Wildlife Service consider adopting the approach to fire classification suggested by Mr Conway that “classification and resourcing of the fire ground response and incident management capability should reflect the potential of the fire rather than observed fire behaviour.”1 1 Report [42] p.7 [4]

9. That the Rural Fire Service and National Parks and Wildlife Service introduce training, exercises or information packages, or other suitable forms of professional development, for operational fire fighters and analysts concerning the potential l effects of atmospheric instability and vorticity-driven lateral spread on fire behaviours in severe-catastrophic fire danger conditions.

10. That the Rural Fire Service and National Parks and Wildlife Service consider developing a land management policy that requires active engagement with property owners adjoining the Park to ensure that hazard reduction and asset protection is encouraged and undertaken before the bush fire season commences.

11. That the Rural Fire Service and National Parks and Wildlife Service consider amending their protocols for upgrading advices to higher levels to emphasise the significance and urgency of raising warning levels as soon as the potential dangers of fire to lives or property materially increase.

12. That the Rural Fire Service and National Parks and Wildlife Service review the procedures for requesting aerial support in ‘severe’ or worse fire conditions to ensure that delays in providing it are reduced to the minimum time possible.

Recommendations to the Minister for the Environment

13. That the National Parks and Wildlife Service, in consultation with the relevant local Council(s), devise a policy that enables the John Renshaw Parkway to be closed at either end of the Warrumbungle National Park during a bush fire in such a way that its closure would not impede access by emergency services vehicles into the park.

14. That the National Parks and Wildlife Service consider incorporating “worst-case scenario” training, as proposed in Mr Conway’s report, in its suite of fire-fighting protocols, exercises and training packages for senior incident controllers and other senior managers.

15. That the National Parks and Wildlife Service consider reviewing its guidelines and protocols in respect of hazard reduction planning and burning-off operations in the light of the evidence from experts witnesses in these proceedings that the incidence of, and intensity of, major fires is increasing and in the light of expert evidence given in these proceedings concerning the dangers of vorticity-driven lateral spread.

16. That the National Parks and Wildlife Service review its protocols for control of Class 1 fires under its control to ensure that incident controllers managing fires in ‘severe’ or worse fire conditions receive as much incident management planning support as is reasonably practicable in the circumstances. [5] [6]

17. That the National Parks and Wildlife Service review its procedures for monitoring Class 1 fires occurring in ‘severe’ or worse fire conditions that cannot be reconnoitred at ground level adequately due to terrain or dangerous conditions, and consider including aerial surveillance (if reasonably practicable) as a standard procedure in such circumstances.

18. That during periods of ‘severe’ or worse fire conditions, that the National Parks and Wildlife Service consider adopting a posture of pre-emptive planning and deployment of incident management teams in national parks similar to the manner in which the Rural Fire Service does.

19. That as part of the adoption of such a posture in ‘severe’ or worse fire conditions, the National Parks and Wildlife Service consider alerting, at an early stage, all relevant persons and organisations, such as shire councils, heavy plant operators, the local RFS captains, Fire & Rescue NSW and other emergency services, that it is doing so, and that their assistance may be required at short notice.

20. That the National Park and Wildlife Service review its fire weather training regime and consider adopting or adapting the fire weather training courses introduced in Victoria following the 2009 bushfire disaster.

21. That National Parks and Wildlife Service conduct a review of its hazard reduction policies to ensure all assets within and on the boundary of the Park are clearly identified and an adequate policy or management plan exists for the protection of all assets, including a procedure pursuant to which progress in meeting hazard reduction targets is regularly and comprehensively assessed. We note that the Parliamentary Inquiry included a recommendation as to funding to be made available for prescribed burning.

22. The National Parks and Wildlife Service conduct a review of its prescribed burns program to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, that all necessary managerial approvals for a prescribed burn are provided as promptly as possible.

23. The National Parks and Wildlife Service consider developing a land management policy that requires hazard reduction around identified assets within the Park and the clearing of fire trials within the Park before the bush fire season commences. Consideration should also be given to developing additional fire trails in the Park, bearing in mind the lack of available fire trails to the south of the John Renshaw Parkway in the park.

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3 Replies to “Inquiry into the fire at the Wambelong Camp Ground – Coroners Findings”

  1. That’s great but:
    1. There is never enough funding for fire trails.
    2. Why even consider weather balloons for the RFS, we have a perfectly good Bureau of Meteorology.
    3. More emphasis upon hazard reduction should become a higher priority.
    4. What about local knowledge during major fires?

    I fear that the RFS empire is reaching dizzy heights (with or without weather balloons) and the RFS volunteer is becoming an endangered species.

  2. Hi All
    My immediate reaction to the Coroner’s report was anger and frustration and disappointment for the poor unfortunate people who were affected by the fire and especially those who lost everything.
    None of those who attended were happy and some leaving in tears.
    I consider the Coroner’s report has been staged as a “no blame show”.
    I came home and read the report. The Coroner dwells for pages on fire prediction reports.
    It is obvious that fire prediction reports should not be wholly depended on as the more extreme the conditions the more the interactions become complex and unpredictable.
    According to what is said in the Coroner’s report, no standard prediction model could have reliably forecast what was going to happen on the Sunday of the fire. The wind directions were changing constantly during the day.
    Experienced firefighters know a major blaze can create its own wind and draughts. Local knowledge from neighbouring Volunteer Fire Captains on the Saturday would have said “get in there and contain that fire”. Many volunteers could have been called upon if they had been notified.
    I was disgusted the Coroner did not put substantial emphasis on a major increase in hazard reduction.
    Currently the official figures are that NPWS is hazard reducing 1% of its estate yearly. This needs to be increased to at least 5% giving a 20 year turnaround in hazard reduction. In many cases with a few wet periods this timeline would be too long. This is good reason for Government to seriously consider other means of hazard reduction within the public land. Grazing of certain areas by cattle or sheep is definitely worth trialling. The area where the Wambelong fire started had not been burnt for 40 years. An elderly long time grazier in the Warkton Valley adjacent to the Park explained to me (reported in my submission to the Upper House Inquiry) that the areas within the national park carried substantial numbers of livestock prior to gazettal.
    Instead our system of firefighting remains reactionary with much of our Fire Captains local knowledge being ignored. Instead they are being sidelined by scientific fire prediction!!!!!
    The only positive I can see in the report is the recommendation for more firetrails in the southern section of the Park.
    The subcommittee of the Castlereagh Bush Fire management Committee (BFMC) is currently working on this issue. The terrain involved is very rugged and will probably require firetrails crisscrossing from private land to national park and vice versa. The plotting of such trails will require either hiking or horseback.
    I believe the Coroners recommendation should be expanded to cover many areas of public land where firetrails are inadequate.
    It is obvious from the report that NPWS requires a mile more flexibility in the way they approach their hazard reduction.
    According to the Coroner’s report (page 28), the opportunity to burn the area where the fire started did not occur because there had been a delay in receiving final approval fro the Regional Manager and the conditions for conducting a prescribed burn were unfavourable due to heavy rains in autumn 2012. The fire broke out on the 12th January 2013!
    It is easy enough to widen a break by drip-torch along a firetrail even if the fire may only run a short distance into the area to be burnt. With such a break established incendiaries can be dropped at short notice into the area to be hazard reduced. I find it hard to believe there was not a suitable time between autumn 2012 and January 2013!
    Hazard reduction by burning is the only system they currently employ. A thousand breeding cows would make a big difference.
    On the Saturday of the fire NPWS assessed the fuel load in the fire area at 11T/HA. By Sunday the RFS Fire Spread Prediction Report assumed overall fuel load to be about 15T/HA.
    The Incident Action Plan by NPWS for Saturday and early Sunday morning was lacking in fire fighter numbers and units on the ground lack of heavy machinery and aircraft and lack of action to contain the fire in the more inaccessible sectors (see Coroner’s report page 20).
    The Coroner does comment on the lack of preparedness by NPWS for the fire season.
    Some of the firetrails in the area remembering that the area that had not burnt in 40 years, were not maintained sufficiently for back burning off.
    Much of what was stated in local submissions and police statements by volunteer fire fighters was ignored in the report.
    The Coroner failed to accept comment or make recommendation on the legitimate issues expressed by volunteer firefighters at the Tooraweenah debrief and in their submissions to the Upper House Inquiry.
    The ignorance and lack of recognition by Coonabarabran Fire Control Centre (FCC) of the local knowledge and experience of volunteer Captains on the western and southern flanks of the fire is glaringly obvious.
    The report does admit that back burns put in by volunteers on the Tooraweenah (western side) of the fire prevented significant loss of property. The Coroner overlooked the attitude of the Coonabarabran FCC condemning any back burning. The volunteer crews who put in those back burns had to do so in defiance of the threats from Coonabarabran FCC.
    RFS used incendiaries to light up an area around Mt Cenn Cruiach to protect the communication tower.
    The report admits the deliberately lit fire burnt out 9,000 hectares mainly private property, but it does not mention it would cost 0ver $1M to replace the fencing burnt.
    Nor does it mention that the local Fire Captains were not consulted and the local farmers were not notified.
    The report gives some comment on alerting the public and property owners.
    One of the major complaints from property owners was that the emergency notification came far too late to enable them to save livestock and farm infrastructure.
    NPWS had enough knowledge of the fire situation on Saturday evening that a “livestock and property alert” should have gone out to Park neighbours and I don’t mean twitter, face book or mobile phones. In most cases this social media simply doesn’t work in many rural areas and most farmers cannot be bothered with it anyway. A landline call to neighbouring Captains and their wives would have spread the word. A lot of livestock and infrastructure could have been saved. The attitude and policy of the FCC showed little if any respect for private property, farm infrastructure and livestock.
    The RFS policy of “property protection” is an absolute waste of resource in western NSW. It may apply in the Sydney metro area or the Blue mountains. The resources are better spent containing and putting out the fire.
    It is obvious that those of us who care about the outcomes from such a disaster are going to have to battle through various reviews to get worthwhile change.
    We are fortunate we have the 29 recommendations from the upper house Inquiry plus our submissions to continue to support our arguments.


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