Lancefield fire investigatator scrutinised

Saturday, October 17, 2015

After the escaped burn around Lancefield during the week of 6 October burnt 3,000 hectares, destroyed 4 homes, dozens of sheds, fences and pasture, the Victorian Government has commissioned Mr Murray Carter to oversee an enquiry.

Murray Carter Mr Carter was the Manager of the WA Department of Environment and Conservation’s Fire Management Services at the time of WA’s horrific Margaret River fires in 2011. Escaped burns there destroyed 32 homes, nine chalets, four sheds and burnt out more than 3,400 hectares. A 50,000 hectare wildfire south of Nannup, a small town 70 km east of Margaret river, was also caused by an escape from a prescribed burn lit at the same time as the Margaret River burns. These were the two most costly and disastrous escapes from prescribed burns in WA and it all happened under Mr Carter’s management.

Mr Carter was then promoted to Director of Western Australia's Office of Bushfire Risk Management. He appears to have no qualifications in fire ecology or risk management, but has worked within the WA bureaucracy for many years.

The enquiry into the escaped fires that Mr Carter managed showed that DEC failed to plan appropriately for an approaching heat wave, and that there was poor planning and communication, completely insufficient coordination,  plus lack of caution and suppression activity.

Of the questions raised by members of the Margaret River community, the following familiar themes were identified:

  • Why was a burn conducted at the end of the Spring season, with summer approaching?
  • Why were simultaneous burns undertaken in the same area?
  • Why did the burns commence when there was a forecast change in weather for northerly winds?
  • Why conduct prescribed burns so close to the peak of the tourist season?

The Victorian investigation will look at the circumstances relating to the Lancefield - Cobaw fire, including making findings in relation to:

  1. the adequacy of planning and resourcing of the planned burn
  2. the appropriateness of the weather and other conditions for conduct of the planned burn on 30 September 2015
  3. what caused the planned burn to break containment lines on 3 October and on 6 October
  4. decision making, management and control of the planned burn, including the adequacy of the patrol strategy adopted following its ignition
  5. the adequacy of communication with the community in the lead-up to the planned burn and after it broke containment lines.

The government claims the investigation will be led by an external, ‘independent’ expert.

WA’s Special Enquiry cross-examined witnesses including Murray Carter. His responses to questions generated this written comment in the report:

“The Special Inquiry believes that through their decisions and actions DEC is devaluing the current ‘Rating System for Prescribed Burning’, especially if it is ignored and decisions are made to proceed regardless of any priorities”.

 

The public have valid reason to be sceptical of the outcome of this investigation, given this ‘independent’ investigator was being investigated for the very same failings in 2011-12.

The extracts below are from the Report of the Special Inquiry into the November 2011 Margaret River Bushfire (Govt of WA) Jan 2012, by MJ Keelty.

Key Findings
Cause(s) of the Margaret River Bushfires

... Instead, the causes of the (2011) Margaret River Bushfires were a series of judgments by the DEC that, with the benefit of hindsight, proved sub-optimal in the circumstances. The findings are that:

Despite exhaustive processes and planning, the implementation of the prescribed burn

  • did not fully take into account the risks associated with re-ignition …
  • The planning process … identified the operation as a ‘Red Flag Burn’, however this did not seem to make a difference as to how the burn was undertaken…

(page 6)

  • The DEC made a judgement that the risk of doing nothing exceeded the risks associated with proceeding ...
  • On 20 November 2011, prescribed burn BS255 at Prevelly was commenced using the application of gel that is ignited and dropped from a helicopter using a ‘drip torch’.
  • On 21 November 2011, a major ignition of BS520 was attempted using the same methodology.
  • Proceeding with … the full knowledge of the forecast weather conditions for 23 November 2011…
  • On 21 November 2011, more than 200 litres of ignited gel was dropped onto the Ellenbrook Block and about 90 litres of ignited gel was dropped onto the Prevelly burn area.
  • …the Incendiary Operations Supervisor … had limited experience in using the ‘drip torch’ in the rural urban fringe …
  • Aerial ignitions are supposed to be endorsed … the Prevelly prescribed burn was not.
  • The planning … was predicated on the best possible conditions that included … a south westerly wind but the observed winds for 23 November 2011 were northerly to north easterly.
  • … south western boundary of the prescribed burn was left exposed for a distance of approximately 1.5 kilometres, making the burn vulnerable to an escape into that direction should the fire … be fanned by northerly or north easterly winds.
  • No ‘spot forecasts’ … were sought…

 (page 7)

 

  • planning and operational decisions did not adequately take into account the forecast weather conditions
  • A visual inspection from the ground … did detect smouldering ….
  • ... a spotter pilot who saw smoke in the south western corner of the Ellenbrook Block reported it …as a matter of ‘high concern’ but it was interpreted and recorded as ‘no concerns’ and no one was … deployed to check the report on the ground.
  • No resources remained at the Ellenbrook Block after 4:00 pm on 22 November 2011 to monitor the area … despite the assessment of the Incendiary Operations Supervisor that approximately 180 hectares … within the burn area remained unburnt.
  • By not leaving resources at the Ellenbrook Block overnight on Tuesday 22 November 2011 a significant delay occurred in the DEC becoming aware that the fire had reignited and become a wildfire in the early hours of Wednesday 23 November 2011.
  • … DEC did not allocate resources to monitor … after hours … perceived difficulties involved in asking volunteers to sit through the night at a fire ground if ‘nothing happens’ ….
  • A delay in recognising the … problem caused a delay in the engagement of the resources to deal with it, …

(page 8)
 

  • … more homes could have been saved if the response to the fires had been better managed and resourced.
  • ...took more than two days to get under control … attributable to the delays in understanding the seriousness …together with a lack of engagement of local knowledge.
  • The conduct of the prescribed burns … raises questions about the attraction and retention of experienced staff in the DEC.
  • The processes applied to the planning and implementation … were cumbersome and not efficient; e.g. many DEC staff signed an ‘Endorsement’ and ‘Approval’ for prescribed burn to proceed a week after the burn actually commenced …brings into question … the process.
  • The risk considerations … were too narrow and the DEC is yet to upgrade its processes …

(page 9)

The appointment of Mr Murray Carter is either a very uninformed choice or a deliberate engagement to subdue public outrage and obscure mistakes of state fire managers.

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