Well, the official inquiry into the 2003 Canberra bushfires which destroyed almost two entire suburbs and claimed the lives of four people, has concluded.
In January, 2003 a large fire front destroyed more than 500 homes in the western Canberra suburbs of Duffy, Cotter Dam and Stromlo Forest. There was, at the time, a credible threat to the Nations’ houses of Parliament and the heart of the city.
The fires originated from lightning strikes in the area and eventually these, initially four separate fires, combined into one massive fire front which whipped through the dry forests (mostly overgrown) at speeds in excess of 100 km/h. The capital burned for more than a week and a 50km emergency fire break had to be built to contain the massive front.
Today, ACT Coroner Maria Doogan handed down an 843 page report into the matter which essentially targeted the lack of quick response to four initial fires which formed into a great wall of flames, eventually engulfing part of western Canberra.
Numerous interviews with ACT Emergency response staff and audio and visual evidence from the days prior to and during the emergency were also taken into consideration whilst compiling the report. The Coroner stated that she was amazed that no more than four people perished under what could only be described as extreme conditions.
Moving to a conclusion, the Coroner laid most of the blame on the senior operations’ staff within the ACT Emergency Response Bureau and noted that she believed there was poor communication between the Bureau and ACT Police, volunteer fire fighters and the wider ACT community.
Now, since this is my blog and I’m not in the habit of re-writing someone else’s news, let me put my own two cents into this report.
Firstly, as a native Canberran (I know, it’s true), I can recall the extreme hot days, and I understand the conditions that were in play. Some of the areas hit originally by the lightning strikes were in very remote areas. Predicting that the four would join together would have required a serious degree of accurate weather forecasting (or clairvoyance) and anticipating such fierce winds would have been practically impossible. This is stuff that Hollywood movies are made of.
Let me put it into perspective. Firstly, the residents of Duffy et al, were known to have actively campaigned against back burning because it would have disrupted their “forest retreat”, so to some degree this would have had an impact on the preparation to the area. Secondly, given the size and strength (and budget) of the Bureau and the other emergency bodies in the ACT, I can’t say it would be fair to criticise a lack of early response, given the original location of the fires.
Having said that, a close friend (who is in the Army reserves) was in the command centre in the first few days of the emergency and could report that there was a lot of chaos, people were slightly unhinged and were not clearly thinking. My friend suggested pulling resources from Duntroon (military academy) to help combat the fires because no one else had thought to do so.
At the end of the day, someone must be held accountable. I still maintain that it is not reasonable to expect that this tragedy could have been avoided.
I wish to acknowledge the extreme bravery and courage of the fire fighters who fought those blazes and the resolve of the Canberra people and at how brilliantly they coped under extreme conditions.