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Environment, Governance, Leadership, Workplace

DFES – Answers needed on Esperance fires

esperance fire trucksLiam Bartlett: Now is the time to answer questions over Esperance fire

November 28, 2015 9:00pm

THE official start to summer is still two days away but already we’ve had nearly a month of what the Department of Fire and Emergency Services call the bushfire “season”.

After Perth’s warmest October on record (since 1897), a hot November and very patchy rain, conditions have been ripe across big swathes of the state for potential fiery disasters.

That’s not a scientific appraisal by any stretch — it’s a back-of-the-matchbox assessment by anyone with a basic awareness of the weather and the Australian bush.

And that’s one of the reasons last week’s tragedy along the south coast, near Esperance, makes such little sense and should prompt a lot more questions and analysis of the lack of early intervention.

It may be that DFES bureaucrats have been too busy launching advertising campaigns asking “are you bushfire ready?” to be truly ready themselves.

Or it could have been a unique convergence of events that nobody could reasonably have made an impact on under any circumstances.

Either way, those with the power to probe, from the Coroner down, owe it to the four souls who perished to find the answers and ensure it’s not repeated.

Farmer Kym Curnow, Anna Winther from Norway, Thomas Butcher from Britain and Julia Kohrs-Lichte from Germany have died in the Esperance fires.

One thing that is certain is the science that DFES is privy to on a daily basis.

At its state operational centre in Cockburn, a full-time meteorologist is stationed to provide daily briefings on weather conditions and threat potential.

With a high degree of responsibility the Bureau of Meteorology is charged with forecasting all-important wind shifts around specific hot spots and most importantly, predicting an area’s “fire danger index rating”, ahead of any outbreak.

This is a complex measure, which includes temperature, relative humidity and wind speed as well as the dryness of surrounding vegetation and the fuel load, which may be present.

As we know, in Esperance’s situation, most local crops were in the best shape for some 30 years and had just begun to be harvested, making that fuel load especially high.

As it happens, the bureau’s daily briefing to DFES on the Monday, more than 24 hours before anyone died, delivered a fire danger index rating of 250 to 260.

Putting that into perspective, that’s worse than the day of the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria that claimed 173 lives and injured some 5000 people.

It’s also more than double the number that indicates “catastrophic” conditions.

Notably, prior to the Victorian tragedy, this rating system stopped at an upper limit of 100. In the wake of Black Saturday, a more comprehensive gauge was designed for a better, national system that more accurately reflected potential danger.

So, with such a dire reading calculated by real scientists, it was no surprise at all that the Esperance fires were uncontainable.

Again, the question needs to be asked, why weren’t the alarm bells ringing at DFES?

Why was it caught napping? Why wasn’t a lot more done a lot earlier. Remember, parts of these fires were sparked by lightning strikes on the Sunday, two full days before they became uncontrollable.

It’s known that from the Thursday prior to the fires, DFES was being informed in the bureau’s daily briefings about potentially “catastrophic” fire conditions.

Sadly, that was entirely correct.

In an area as big as the Esperance shire, one would suspect that an official warning of that magnitude would prompt a mobilisation of extra resources either into the immediate zone or placed on standby, ready to be dispatched.

But it appears neither occurred.

Liam Bartlett.

This columnist has learnt of local farmers making calls to fire authorities as early as 6.30am on Tuesday, worried about the size of flames in inaccessible areas close to their properties and asking for assistance, only to be told there was none.

This was almost nine hours before four people were incinerated.

The reason for the lack of back-up was a fire near Albany, said to be using all available water bombers but if one fire 470km away can paralyse this farming region to such an extent, then DFES must go back to the drawing board.

Questions also need to be answered as to why local crop-dusting pilots who were more than ready to take to the skies were threatened with a loss of licence if they flew near the blaze.

It should be remembered that the farmers who were fighting these fires in the early stages were hardly amateurs.

Sure, they are volunteers but between them they have decades of experience in fire management and they know the local conditions better than any office worker in Cockburn.

When they express such incredulity and disbelief in how these fires were managed, the top brass at DFES should listen very carefully.

Ironically, questions to DFES from this columnist this week went unanswered.

There were other issues at play in this disaster that also need to be examined, including the ongoing problems with telecommunications and the ability to cut firebreaks in national parks and reserves. But the wider community needs to know that DFES is listening to its own briefings and acting on advice.

Recently the department has offered plenty of its own wisdom.

When it asks “are you bushfire ready?” DFES states: “You need to understand your bushfire risk so you can prepare your home, develop a survival plan and know what to do when a bushfire starts”. All eminently sensible, but does the messenger need to heed it’s own clarion call?

It’s instructive that DFES’ own bushfire bible is called “Prepare. Act. Survive”.

The tragedy of Esperance suggests its head office needs more work on the front end.

Liam Bartlett is a journalist with Channel Nine and can be seen on 9 News Perth

Email: lbartlett@nine.com.au

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About steveblizard

Steve Blizard commenced his financial planning career in 1988 from a background of life insurance broking, a field in which he still works. He is a member of the Financial Planning Association and the Responsible Investment Association. His experience ranges from administration of Superannuation to advice regarding insurance, retirement, remuneration and investment planning. Steve is an accredited Remuneration Consultant, specialising in salary packaging. He is a columnist for the Swan Magazine and the WA Business News

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