Black Saturday Royal Commission Findings

The Age, July 31, 2010

Victoria’s contentious "stay or go" policy would be overhauled and a new independent Fire Commissioner appointed to oversee the state’s firefighting operations, under recommendations made by the Bushfires Royal Commission in its final report handed down today.

Senior figures in the emergency services, including then police commissioner Christine Nixon and Country Fire Authority chief officer Russell Rees, also came under attack in the report for catastrophic failures in the emergency nerve centre on the day of the country’s worst ever bushfire disaster, Black Saturday.

The fires in February last year killed 173 people and destroyed thousands of homes, prompting the most comprehensive investigation of a natural disaster in the country’s history.

After 154 days of evidence from more than 400 witnesses during the commission, the final report tabled Parliament today found that:
  • Victoria should revise its bushfire safety policy to enhance the role of public warnings and the dissemination of information
  • the amount of fuel-reduction burning done on public land each year should be more than doubled
  • bushfire shelters and community shelters should be established in the state’s high-risk areas together with assistance in the evacuation of vulnerable people.
  • electricity legislation be amended so that power lines in Victoria be replaced with aerial bundled cabling and underground cabling to reduce the bushfire risk
  • co-ordination and communication between the Country Fire Authority and the Department of Sustainability and Environment be drastically improved.

The report also recommends Victoria enact legislation to "appoint a fire commissioner as an independent statutory officer’’ responsible to the Police Minister. The fire commissioner would replace the CFA chief fire officer as the senior firefighter in the state.

“Stay and defend or leave early’’ policy criticised

One of the reports most far-reaching recommendations is a shake-up of the so-called ’’stay and defend or leave early’’ policy, which has been a mainstay of fire management across the country. Lawyers assisting the commission had called for the policy to be abandoned, however today’s final report recommended a hybrid model embracing a range of options including evacuation of high-risk areas on code-red days.

The report states that, while the central tenets of the stay-or-go policy remain sound, it was severely tested and Black Saturday exposed weaknesses in its application. The policy was too "simplistic" and "realistic advice is unavoidably more complex’’, the report states. "As a consequence, although the Commission suggests retaining the effective elements of the existing policy it also recommends augmenting and improving the “Stay and defend or leave early’’ policy in a number of areas," the report says.

Power Lines

The Commission heard that power lines were to blame for five of the biggest blazes on February 7 last year, including the fire that started in Kilmore East and eventually killed more than 100 people. The commission recommends progressively replacing single wires with safer bundled cables or underground lines - a process electricity companies have warned would cost billions of dollars and could increase household bills by as much as 20 per cent a year for 20 years.

Poor Leadership

The Commission also criticised police commissioner Christine Nixon and Country Fire Authority chief officer Russell Rees. "The Commission concludes that some elements of the leadership provided on February 7 were wanting," the report states. "Mr Rees and Mr Waller ought to have done more in relation to warnings ...supporting incident management teams and statewide planning," the report states.

"The Commission considers that Ms Nixon’s approach to emergency coordination was inadequate." Mr Rees and Ms Nixon later chaired Victoria’s Bushfire Recovery and Reconstruction Authority, a post from which she resigned earlier this month. Mr Rees quit his position in April, and at the time denying it was over the criticism of his performance.

It was a matter of priority that the CFA improve its radio coverage, particularly black spots, the report said.

‘Black Saturday report tabled’, The Age, July 31, 2010, , (Accessed 20 May 2013)

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