Senior RFS officers ignored advice on back burning Black Sunday fire, inquest hears

Sydney Morning Herald

By Paul Bibby, Court Reporter, November 11, 2014

Rural Fire Service officers in charge of combating a fire chose to try a risky back-burning operation during the 2013 “Black Sunday'” bushfire, despite being strongly advised not to, an inquest has heard.

The Wambelong fire destroyed 53 homes and tens of thousands of animals in January, 2013, when it was sparked in the Warrumbungle National Park, near Coonabarabran.

An inquest into the fire at the NSW Coroner’s Court has heard that the response to the blaze was characterised by communication breakdowns, mistaken predictions by fire analysts and local residents being given incorrect information.

On Thursday a Senior Fire Ranger with the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service, Peter Brookhouse, told the inquest that early on morning of January 13 – the day firefighters lost control of the blaze – he was contacted by the Acting Zone Manager for the RFS.

He said the zone manager, Stuart Green, had asked him what he thought of their plan to undertake back burning on the Wambelong fire.

“You became despondent, said it was a bad idea, but they said it was going ahead, is that correct?” Junior Counsel Assisting the inquest Adam Casselden asked.

“I was looking at the weather forecast – it was a very powerful one – could see what the conditions were going to be,” Mr Brookhouse replied.

“High temperature, low humidity, the ground slope … the probability was very high that a back burn going up slope it wasn’t going to stay in the box,” he said.

“Did you have a sense it could eventuate into a landscape fire?” Mr Casselden continued.

“I felt it was going to be a large fire. I didn’t think it was going to be a small fire,” Mr Brookhouse replied.

Mr Brookhouse said that he passed on these concerns to Mr Green, but, despite this advice, senior RFS officers went ahead with the back burning operation.

The inquest has previously heard that the back burning operation may have exacerbated the severity of the fire by setting off smaller spot fires in other locations.

Later Mr Brookhouse said that computer modelling used to predict bushfire behaviour was flawed.

“There is no really good prediction for fires under extreme conditions,” he said.

“The parameters of the models were exceeded. I think the models just don’t work when it’s under extreme conditions.”

Mr Brookhouse said he hoped that one of the lessons to be learnt from Black Sunday was that crews coming in from other areas to help fight bushfires would be able to make full use of local knowledge.

“One of the criticisms that always comes out is that local knowledge wasn’t listened to,” he said.

“With large fires you have a lot of resources from out of area. But often local knowledge is sitting in the back of trucks.

It’s Important for local brigade members to be allocated to section leaders from outside the area, and other leaders, so that the local knowledge can be utilised with outside units.”

The inquest continues.

Click HERE to see this article on the SMH web page.

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