Contradiction in Victorian bushfires reporting

The Royal Commission into the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires has released its report. My main interest in this over 18 months has been to understand the timeline of what happened around Melbourne on the 7th of Feb 2009. A particularly telling fact for me was the statement by the noted fire expert Dr Tolhurst to the ABC TV show 4Corners on the 16th Feb 2009. Note that he was in fire HQ but had not heard of casualties by 8pm – when he went home. Now we hear from this news item quoting the Royal Commission report being critical of the then Police Commissioner – saying that fatalities were known by 6pm. I find it near impossible to believe that if the police knew of deaths at 6pm – that this information would not have filtered through to a savvy fire expert in HQ within 2 hours.

Christine Nixon sorry for bungled Black Saturday performance
FORMER police commissioner Christine Nixon apologised unreservedly yesterday for her bungled performance on Black Saturday after the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission lambasted her “hands-off approach”.

The commission’s final report delivered a damning appraisal of Ms Nixon’s willingness to claim responsibility as chief commissioner and co-ordinator of the State Emergency Response Plan on February 7 last year. It described her leadership as “inadequate”.

The report was highly critical of Ms Nixon’s decision to leave the Emergency Co-ordination Centre at 6pm, return home and go out to dinner with friends rather than stay and lead an offensive against the fiercest fires to strike the state.

“It is not satisfactory that at this time – when she was aware of the potential for disaster and, in fact, while the magnitude of the disaster was becoming apparent with confirmation of fatalities – Ms Nixon was absent,” it said.

“On a day when conditions were predicted, and then proved, to be worse than Ash Wednesday, something more was required.”

The report said Ms Nixon’s approach to emergency co-ordination and the manner in which she acted “left much to be desired”.

It also expressed “dismay” at her approach in giving evidence before the royal commission, describing parts of her testimony as “inaccurate and incomplete”, but found that she “did not intentionally mislead it”.

Ms Nixon yesterday accepted the findings and was sorry and sympathetic to fire victims still trying to piece their lives back together.

“The commission says on that day I should have stayed and I agree,” she said.

“They say that I should have been more active on that day and I agree.”

Ms Nixon said she felt responsibility for what happened on the day.

“I think back, was there something I could have done differently that may have saved people and I don’t think there was but I’ve certainly learnt a lot from it,” she said.

Asked if she would act differently if she had her time over she said: “I think all of us would do everything differently.”

Ms Nixon was not the only leader to receive scathing criticism from the report.

It found former CFA chief Russell Rees and DSE chief fire officer Ewan Waller relegated responsibility and did not do enough to warn communities about the firestorm heading their way.

The report said Mr Rees and Mr Waller were not fully across details of the deadly fires, did not personally map or monitor them and failed to seize responsibility.

Alarmingly, the report revealed Mr Rees did not speak to the incident controller of any of the major fires.

“He therefore remained operationally removed from the fires and, as a result, was not in a position to appreciate the deficiencies in the staffing and expertise of some incident management teams,” it said.

“Mr Rees did not review the warnings being issued for the Kilmore East fire despite the fire’s obviously disastrous potential.

“He did not review any predictive maps for any of the fires and would therefore not have been in a position – even had he reviewed the warnings being issued – to assess whether it was appropriate to warn the communities in the predicted fire path.”

The report found “a disturbing tendency among senior fire agency personnel – including the chief officers – to consistently allocate responsibility further down the chain of command”.

“Although the chief officer of the CFA and the chief fire officer of the DSE were undoubtedly in command of the resources in their respective agencies, neither was directly controlling the response to any of the fires,” it said.

The report concluded that Mr Rees and Mr Waller should have done more to issue warnings, support incident management teams and institute statewide planning.

“To the extent that they relied on their subordinates to perform these tasks, this reliance was ineffective,” it said.

CFA chief Mick Bourke refused to comment directly about the criticism levelled at Mr Rees or reveal where he was yesterday, but said the report would be a “catalyst for change”.

The commission found Police Minister Bob Cameron “acted properly” before and during the fires, but said he should have raised the option of declaring a state of disaster with Premier John Brumby.

Though she admitted to a lack of leadership on Black Saturday, Ms Nixon hoped her poor performance on that day would not overshadow her previous eights years as chief commissioner.

“I hope that the community, when they do get a chance to read this in more detail, takes note of what the commission has had to say,” she said.

“They certainly suggest that I should have done things differently and that’s certainly part of it, but I think you have to judge a person’s behaviour in the context of all of the things they have ever done as a leader.”

Bendigo resident Helen Creely, who led a neighbour’s horses to safety at the start of the blaze before rescuing her own, said money spent on the royal commission should have been given to the victims.

“I think Christine Nixon has been made a scapegoat and that is wrong,” she said.

“Nobody was to blame, nobody could have done anything the conditions were so bad that day.”

3 thoughts on “Contradiction in Victorian bushfires reporting”

  1. I have been beating the scientific monitoring of fuel loads drum because it is one of the few variables determining fire intensity which we can CONTROL. AGW types notwithstanding, we cannot control the weather variables – temperature, humidity and wind speed.
    It is a cause of concern that all the statements about fuel loads are based on guesstimates, often varying by up to a factor of 10! Tolhurst’s guesstimates were double the CFA’s and some guesstimates were 10 times those of the CFA! As intensity is proportional to the SQUARE of fuel load we have guesstimates of predicted fire intensity varying by a factor of 1000!! This is hardly conducive to rational decision making and undermines the credibility of those on the ground offering advice.
    As a student I had to get work experience during vacation. I remember working with a Metallurgist whose job was to monitor pollution levels by monthly sampling of emissions from the plant. This was then used to trigger any corrective action. This was rational decision making which all levels of management understood and accepted.
    We need to set up a similar system wrt bushfire management/control. I do not see any recommendation for setting up such a system in the Commission’s Recommendations.

  2. Apologies, a ten-fold increase in fuel load will result in fire intensity increasing 100 fold not 1000 as stated above.

  3. On that dreadful day the fires were about 25 km north of home, so we listened to the media attentively. It was a surprise that so little was said officially. Mid afternoon, some 3AW talk show people reported that conditions were worsening, that they were getting out pronto. Then on-the-spot reporting of any type seemed to become rare.

    One month after the fires, on a visit, one could see the possible answer. The intensity of the fires and freak effects test imagination. To officials nearby, the sight must have been so horrifying that survival rather than job decription prevailed. I’m not surprised that some seem to have fled, leading to a breakdown in communication to the public. It was quite late at night as I recall, before we heard of fatalities at Marysville, well after the afternoon fire.

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