Coonabarabran - Kevin Humphries

Mr Humphries had this to say on the Wambelong Fire, Legislative Assembly, 10 May 2016:

I refer to the Wambelong Fire that occurred on 12 and 13 January around the Coonabarabran district and the Warrumbungle National Park. On that day Bureau of Meteorology fire information, according to the continuous Haines index which measures atmospheric instability, was extreme. On those days there were temperatures of more than 40 degrees and winds from the North to North‑West of 20 to 30 kilometres per hour. The resulting fire damaged hundreds of thousands of acres of National Park, destroyed private property, destroyed 52 houses and numerous stock.

The Government’s response, which covers both the upper House and the coronial inquiries into the Wambelong Fire, is that further investigation is required. It is apparent from initial information available to the National Parks and Wildlife Service [NPWS] that it was well aware of the seriousness of the weather conditions and the potential for a fire outbreak. We know from the NPWS response, the inquiries and the statements that have been made today, that one ranger was on duty when the duty roster called for at least 12. The NPWS did not comply with duty roster guidelines for extreme weather conditions, the regional manager did not consider suspending flexible leave and adjusting rosters to ensure maximum staffing levels, and it did not conduct a sufficient number of park patrols.

One ranger on patrol was absent from the park during the hottest part of the day and the only ranger on duty was 35 kilometres away from the park when the fire started. A NPWS ranger did not discover the fire. Not a single off-duty highly trained, competent and experienced ranger heard alarm bells ringing or expressed any concern about the understaffing of the park at a time when the fire danger rating was extreme. The NPWS did not have water in it’s firefighting tanker, it did not strategically place any firefighting equipment and it did not give consideration to deploying staff to strategic locations to enable a rapid fire response.

With the fire rating at extreme NPWS staff did not staff a single fire tower or observation point and no other ground-based detection measures were implemented. The NPWS did not provide a level of preparedness for bushfire suppression that was appropriate to mount a sufficient initial attack capability, given the existing and forecasted fire danger. The one and only ranger who was on duty on the day that the fire ignited spent half the day away from the park. Rangers did not follow the NPWS fire management manual guidelines or the northern plains regional incident procedures manual regarding fire preparedness.

The Warrumbungle National Park area manager and regional fire management specialist allegedly had a poor relationship with other staff in the area and the regional fire management specialist was not consulted about the fire. It took 1½ hours from the time the fire was discovered for the first NPWS tanker to travel three kilometres along a fully sealed road to get to the scene. Staff did not initiate arrangements for rapid response of heavy plant and/or aircraft and they did not warn a single property owner adjoining the park, of which there were 41, that a fire had broken out, as they were required to do under their management guidelines. They did not adequately notify the public that the park was closed. NPWS staff did not prevent members of the public from walking around the park and did not remove members of the public who were found in the park at the time. The NPWS also did not conduct sufficient hazard reduction procedures to protect the park.

The coronial inquiry and the upper House inquiry were not about establishing liability for the fire but I want to comment on the unbelievable efforts that were made by a number of people during and after the fire. I raised this matter because to date the Government has not acknowledged the claims of the Coonabarabran Property Alliance that in the lead-up to this fire the NPWS was negligent in its duties and is liable for the outbreak, the resulting loss of property and damage to stock, and for ruining people’s livelihoods. As the number of our national parks is constantly growing the NPWS must be a good neighbour, lift its game and prepare for and suppress any fires that occur. There is still a lot more work to be done.

Click HERE to view this Hansard on the Parliament of NSW web site.

More to say on the Wambelong Fire – Kevin Humphries MP
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