Canberra Govt says it has no duty to stop fires

Headline in the “you have to pinch yourself” class.

Govt says it has no duty to stop fires

03 Mar, 2010 08:50 AM
The ACT Government had no duty of care to the Canberrans who were killed, injured or left homeless by the city’s 2003 bushfires, the ACT Supreme Court was told yesterday.

The Government’s barrister, Peter Garling, SC, told the second day of the hearings that there was no legal duty of care to control fuel load or maintain fire tracks, no legal duty to fight the fires once they broke out and no duty to warn residents in the path of the blaze that they were in danger.

The court is hearing an action by more than 600 plaintiffs who are suing the ACT and NSW governments for more than $100 million, alleging that the state and territory were negligent in their actions before and during the fire event and are liable for the deaths, injuries and property damage caused by the blazes.

The ACT Government denies that it was negligent in failing to prepare for the firestorm that swept into the city’s south on January 18, 2003, that it was inept in fighting the blaze and that it did not issue adequate warnings.

After hearing opening addresses yesterday and on Monday from barristers representing ACT and NSW residents and from counsel for insurance giant QBE, Mr Garling told Chief Justice Terence Higgins that the plaintiffs had failed to establish that the Government failed in its duty or that it even had a duty to the plaintiffs.

”The law does not impose on any government an obligation to warn its citizens of a natural event that is occurring or is likely to occur,” he told the Chief Justice.

He is also challenging the plaintiffs’ assertion that firefighting commanders did not do all they could to fight the fires and disputed a claim the fire that ravaged Duffy, Chapman and Kambah was an amalgam of four fires.

5 thoughts on “Canberra Govt says it has no duty to stop fires”

  1. The ACT has one of the toughtest legislation on Director Liability. Not only is there primary responsibility, ie the Director is directly culpable, but it also imposes a secondary liability ie if the corporation is liable then the director is automatically liable and the onus is on him to prove a defense! Conveniently, this responsibility, apparently, does not extend to the actions of the Government.
    Brief chronology of events shows some interesting facts.
    The fire was left to burn for several days without any attempt to control it. It slowly burnt its way towards Canberra.
    On the Saturday of the fire, BOM had forecast extreme conditions – high temperatures and a strong wind blowing from the direction of the fire.
    The Chief Minister was in the Gym on Saturday morning, “working out”.
    At about 2pm in the afternoon, with the fires lapping the suburbs of Canberra and after a week of inaction, the Chief Minister declares a State of Emergency and hands responsibility to the the Chief Police Officer of the ACT, John Murray.
    Murray, seeing the situation as hopeless, orders an evacuation of the frontline suburbs, sending in the Police to enforce his decision and saving hundreds of lives.
    What a shame the Director’s Liability doesnt apply to the Ministers of the Crown!

  2. Slightly off topic, but if you think Canberra’s reaction to the coming fires was bad, read some of the Victorian Royal Commission testimony on Black Saturday.

    At least canberra had a police chief who was prepared to take action and responsibility.
    In Victoria, we had green lunatics turning our outer suburbs into death traps for decades, state governments that went along with their insanity and then, when it all caught fire, an emergency services infrastructure that collapsed at the first sign of smoke.

    Inferno: The Day Victoria Burned by Roger Franklin covers the same ground as the Commission but is a lot more readable.

  3. I could not have put it better myself.
    I concluded that the attention of the fire services was to SE of Melbourne that morning and at the time of ignition at Kilmore nobody was watching or units could not be sent north quick enough. If airborne tankers were sent in to that Kilmore source quickly – history could have been changed. It is amazing that so many hours passed and nothing was done.
    The experience of Dr Tollhurst who went home at 8pm coz it was quiet !!
    Surreal – points to what I have termed possibly the most catastrophic breakdown of normal state functions in modern Australia. And all who were responsible are pretty much home safe.
    I have put up up a few articles since the big day

    How did the Kilmore, Kinglake and Marysville fires ignite ?

    More complete sequence of BoM weather radar images Melbourne bushfires 7th Feb 2009

    South East Australian heatwave in January 2009 is not detectable in “global warming” data

    “…I finished .. about 8 o’clock that night and there had been no reports at that stage of casualties…”

  4. When you remember that the NSW, Vic and ACT governments all accepted the demands of green groups in the mid 1990’s to reduce the program of prescribed burns it seems absurd that they can the walk away from their responsibility.
    Even though the dreaded SEPP 46 regulations were repealed in 2005 in NSW there is such a backlog of hazard reduction to be done and it all involves forest fuels at the maximum accumulated fuel loads for any one location.
    This means that every HR is at risk of getting away because of the high fuel loads.
    This is also why we are still in for “Mega” wild fires for a few years yet.
    Wont matter to me because our house was destroyed by a wild fire last year.
    We had the area that would of protected our community marked down for a prescribed burn this autumn but mum nature beat us to it.
    I hold Bob Carr and Bob Debus (as the responsible Ministers in 1997 when the SEPP46 regulations were introduced) responsible for the loss of our home, our memories and our valued treasures.
    Curse them forever for introducing that failed system of land management and curse the RFS leadership at that time for not standing firm against a change to the perfectly adequate land management systems of the 1980’s.

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