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Firestorm victims await final judgement on compensation claims

By 6 June 2014 9

fire-storm

The firestorm in January 2003 left the city battered and stricken and areas of surrounding rural communities, plantations and farmland utterly devastated. Four people died, hundreds were injured, some 500 homes lost and the city’s water, power and transport infrastructure badly damaged.

But many of the victims soon found themselves facing a new nightmare, a legal minefield to navigate as they contended with insurers to rebuild their homes and get on with their lives. Slowly but steadily each individual case has found agreement and the scars of destroyed houses, gutted cars and blackened streets are a thing of the past.

But one group of plaintiffs has continued a struggle for compensation, which has now lasted for eleven years and five months, and it’s not over yet. However, their case may have reached a turning point this week after the full bench of the ACT Court of Appeal reserved its judgement on whether NSW Government agencies had been negligent in their handling of the fires in NSW bordering the ACT.

In many ways this saga is a mirror of the larger picture of official incompetence and cover-ups that are as much a hallmark of the fire event itself, that led to Canberra’s baptism by fire on Saturday 18 January 2003.

The men and women on the ground were heroic and admirable as time and again they faced overwhelming fire events. Police and firefighters could have done no more.

But the management of Canberra’s fire preparedness was almost laughable, had it not been so tragic and so terrible.  ACT Government officials refused to issue warnings to residents and were denying any danger as late as midday on the day of the fires.

In the immediate aftermath, a blanket of silence fell across all government agencies in Canberra and NSW. Managers of years standing were no longer providing public comment about the fire event. The ACT Government appointed legal counsel for all key participants, who were quarantined from any blame or any accountability. That ‘official silence’ remains today and many of the clear blunders that contributed to the failure to be prepared or to respond in a coordinated way have been quietly brushed under the carpet.

The central figure in this latest case before the ACT Court of Appeal is Wayne West, a farmer whose 400 ha property, Lazy Acres in the Brindabella Valley, was destroyed – but only after emergency crews had drained away all his water supplies and emptied his dams. Mr West and his co-appellants allege that the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and NSW Rural Fire Service were negligent in the way they managed the fires.

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The plaintiffs lost their original case against NSW in 2012 when Chief Justice Higgins said there was no evidence NSW had failed to act in good faith, and he did not find them liable. Yet, Justice Higgins found that the NSW agencies had failed a duty of care by deciding not to fight the McIntyre’s Hut fire on January 9. He said they also failed to carry out back-burning along a containment line along the Goodradigbee River.

If the bench decides in favour of Mr West and his co-appellants then it will go some way to helping them to finally put their lives back together. It will also mark official recognition of the source of the fire that reached Canberra in less than four hours and devastated the city’s south-western suburbs.

Peter Clack wrote the cover story about the fire in The Canberra Times, published on Sunday, 19 January 2003. He is the author of Firestorm Trial by Fire.

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9 Responses to Firestorm victims await final judgement on compensation claims
#1
Josh Mulrine12:16 pm, 06 Jun 14

Great article about the pressing issue of the government not speaking up for their actions. I hope we don’t see this kind of catastrophic event relived anytime soon.

#2
Grimm1:06 pm, 06 Jun 14

Josh Mulrine said :

Great article about the pressing issue of the government not speaking up for their actions. I hope we don’t see this kind of catastrophic event relived anytime soon.

Not immediately replanting the pine plantations right next to residential areas, that massively exacerbated the issue would have been a good way to avoid a repeat…

#3
Masquara5:07 pm, 07 Jun 14

“Firestorms” happen in America. Here in Australia they are bushfires.

#4
davo1018:42 pm, 07 Jun 14

Masquara said :

“Firestorms” happen in America.

Err, they happen here as well, that’s what pyro-convective event means.

#5
dungfungus9:04 pm, 07 Jun 14

Masquara said :

“Firestorms” happen in America. Here in Australia they are bushfires.

Actually, both “forest fires” in the USA and “bushfires” in Australia have been re-labled as “firestorms” by the climate alarmists.
You have got to agree that “firestorm” sounds more ominous than just a forest/bush fire.
The alarmists are also using the word “extreme” to describe anything that is outside the norm even though all the “extreme weather events” have happened before.

#6
Peter Clack5:14 pm, 08 Jun 14

I think the main difference is that bushfires usually describe fires in bushland. But the fires in urban Canberra were not bushfires, nor were they because of bushfires. The fire that rushed into Canberra created its own firestorm, and the cloud of wind driven embers is what set houses and gardens ablaze. A firestorm is described as “a very intense and destructive fire (typically one caused by bombing) in which strong currents of air are drawn into the blaze from the surrounding area making it burn more fiercely. This is what happened to Dresden and many other cities in WWII. Cheers

#7
Tetranitrate10:08 pm, 08 Jun 14

Masquara said :

“Firestorms” happen in America. Here in Australia they are bushfires.

errr actually it’s more that the yanks call bushfires ‘wildfires’.

#8
dungfungus10:30 am, 09 Jun 14

Tetranitrate said :

Masquara said :

“Firestorms” happen in America. Here in Australia they are bushfires.

errr actually it’s more that the yanks call bushfires ‘wildfires’.

Because more Americans are foolishly building homes “in the wild” where the wildfires are regular events, the very combustible cedarwood homes now in their midst that they are consuming are turning them into “firestroms”.
The same thing happens in Australia as people blindly build in known bushfire areas (including Canberra outskirts) ignoring the history of bushfires tearing through the region every 50 years.
Some of these fires even burned unchecked to beaches on the South Coast.
The 2003 bushfire (started by lightning, not climate change) that bore down on Canberra manifested into a firestorm when if engulfed the Radiata plantations between Cotter and Uriarra. People who are not familiar with the history of bushfires in Australia find it easier to blame climate change when the real reason for loss of life and property is ignorance of the history of bushfires and the poor planning that follows. The ACT Government has learned nothing.

#9
Tetranitrate2:04 pm, 09 Jun 14

dungfungus said :

.
The 2003 bushfire (started by lightning, not climate change) that bore down on Canberra manifested into a firestorm when if engulfed the Radiata plantations between Cotter and Uriarra. People who are not familiar with the history of bushfires in Australia find it easier to blame climate change when the real reason for loss of life and property is ignorance of the history of bushfires and the poor planning that follows. The ACT Government has learned nothing.

Yeah well having those Radiata pine plantations on the edge of town adjacent to houses was bound to end in tears one way or another.
I remember doing orienteering there as a kid in the late 90s, also in the pine plantations on coppins crossing road. The whole area out there was basically a trail of fuel leading directly to suburbia.

The conditions were about as bad as they could be on the day, but it was practically inevitable that a bushfire would come though there one day and that the pines would go up like kindling.

It wouldn’t have been as bad, but even a determined arsonist could have made a real mess of things and probably would have sooner or later.

What’s really inexcusable is that in summer 2001/2002 we actually did get a warning – the fires then wiped out the pines along the tuggeranong parkway, crossed the parkway and came right to the fences of the Zoo/Aquarium. Threatened the governor generals residence, ect.

People forget about those fires and conflate the damage from them with that from the 2003 fires unfortunately. Nobody died then, fortunately.

The 2001 fires should have been a warning as to how dangerous the pines were but unfortunately nobody did anything.

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