Wye River blaze: firefighters’ union calls for inquiry

January 14, 2016 – 1:40PM

Richard Willingham


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The firefighters’ union has demanded a coronial inquiry into the devastating Wye River fire after revelations of a backburning operation in the Otway Ranges before Christmas Day.

On Wednesday Fairfax Media revealed leaked files showed that a controversial backburning operation, carried out despite warnings of potential catastrophe, may have led to the destruction of more than 100 houses in Wye River and Separation Creek.

Thick smoke rises from the flames.

Thick smoke rises from the flames. Photo: Tom Jacobs

Officials have admitted that fires were lit in the area in an attempt to control the fire, which was initially sparked by lightning on December 19.

Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley has revealed he was initially opposed to backburning and was only convinced after thorough risk assessments from experts.

The United Firefighters Union secretary Peter Marshall said only an inquiry by the State Coroner could establish any connection between a backburning operation and the loss of homes.

A firefighter inspects a burnt-out car in Wye River.

A firefighter inspects a burnt-out car in Wye River. Photo: Chris Hopkins

The union said it was not unprecedented for the Coroner to investigate non-fatal incidents.

The union wants the Coroner, whose remit involves investigating fires, to look into the blaze because the office is independent of government and the events have major implications for future firefighting and fuel management strategies.

The Inspector-General for Emergency Management is examining the fire, but Mr Marshall said that would not go far enough.

“It is clearly not appropriate for a government body to inquire into a fire for which government agencies may have some liability,” he said.

The union believes the Coroner would be able to look at such questions as:

  • Why was the fire not extinguished earlier, like a similar small fire in similar terrain at Delaney’s Track?
  • Why was the decision made to add fire to fire – to increase the size of the initial fire – despite forecasts of high temperatures and strong winds.
  • Does firefighting culture need to change to attack fires faster and sooner with all available resources, rather than waiting for the fire to approach or trying to draw fire to accessible lines by deliberate burns?

Mr Marshall said: “The government has told the forestry industry that the Inspector-General for Emergency Management will hold an inquiry into the fire. This is unprecedented, and beyond the resources and powers of this position.

“Wye River residents are entitled to an independent coronial inquiry.”

Mr Lapsley told a press conference on Thursday morning a review by the Inspector-General was independent of the agencies involved in the fire fight.

“The Inspector-General of Emergency Management has got continuity of other fires,” he said. “They’re currently reviewing things that go right back to 2009 from Black Saturday fires. They have been involved heavily in the Hazelwood fire … we believe they’re very competent.”

Mr Lapsley said he personally did not support the dangerous and difficult tactic of using fire on fire, but in this case, all other options had been exhausted.

“We have to stand by those decisions,” he said. “We went through the process over multiple days to work out what is the best tactic to be deployed. The tactics employed in the first couple of days were not working.”

He said the three spot fires that leapt over containment lines on Christmas Day were from the original fire in a deep gorge that was inaccessible and could not be extinguished.

Mr Lapsley said he would wait for the independent review to learn how successful the burn-out tactic was.

“It’s easy in hindsight to say what you would and wouldn’t do,” he said.

Environment Minister Lisa Neville backed the operational decisions of fire authorities and emergency services.

“I absolutely have confidence, and I know the government has confidence, in all our chief fire officers and the emergency services commissioner,” Ms Neville said.

She also said there was no need for the Coroner to investigate because the Inspector-General of Emergency Management was already looking at the Wye River fire.

“They are always difficult decisions but … in an emergency situation, we’ve got to back these people that are making very difficult decisions,” Ms Neville said.

“This could have been much worse without the backburn.” 

The opposition emergency services spokesman Brad Battin demanded the government get to the bottom of the operation.

“[Premier] Daniel Andrews must investigate this and tell Victorians the truth about the fire,” Mr Battin said.

Source : The Age

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