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ACT and NSW governments to be sued over 2003 fires

By Thumper - 1 March 2010 44

As we all know, the 2003 fires happened a long, long time ago, in fact for me it now seems to be a lifetime ago. And yet we see that more than 600 plaintiffs, including victims and insurance companies, will take a case to the ACT Supreme Court on Monday for compensation regarding the fires.

Whereas I agree that much more could have been done, and that our ACT government appeared quite incompetent during the fires, one must ask, is it not time to move on?

[Ed] Housebound also submitted but is seeing the other side of the coin, see below.

No matter how much the ACT Government tries to move on from the 2003 bushfires, another day of reckononing has finally arrived.

The government must have thought it was over after the Doogan inquiry, the appeal against it (which the government effectively lost apart from one or two minor points); and then the NRMA withdrew from the action. The ACT and NSW Governments have vigorously opposed the actions in an attempt to keep them out of court, but all to no avail. Now, seven years on, the matter still has as much life as ever.

The judge has put years of jursidictional dodging to rest with this gem: “It was a fire. It did damage. It does not matter if it started in NSW or New Zealand. I do not see why there needs to be ownership of the fire,” he said. “The real question is who had the responsibility to avoid the damage.”

So, today is the first day of the court hearings. All respect is due to those who haven’t given up.

What’s Your opinion?

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44 Responses to
ACT and NSW governments to be sued over 2003 fires
JessP 6:45 pm 02 Mar 10

Things went wrong.

The existing fire in an area where it couldn’t be fought, the wind conditions, the undergrowth, the areas around houses that had lots of trees around them, the paling fences that have been a part of Canberra for more than 50 years, the wood chips people used on their gardens (I blame Don Burke and Peter Cundall), the shitty radio system, the unbelievable speed it all went bad and the lack of warning for some…..

Yes, things went wrong.

Does suing the ACT Govt (aka the citizens of the ACT as we will all pay) help? If you were insured you got covered. If you were not you are a bloody idiot and you got something from the fund raising and the Govt anyway. AT the end of the day if it costs the ACT millions of dollars but you can point the finger does it really make a difference?

Lets fix the problems, improve the fire services, have better clearing policys and not waste millions on litigation…..and perhaps compensation that will change nothing.

ricci 4:48 pm 02 Mar 10

I am a little surprised at Thumper’s comment “is it not time to move on”. If the government and senior ESB bureaucrats had accepted some responsibility and accountability, and Stanhope and ESB bureaucrats had not appealed the Coroner’s verdict, many people would have moved on.

Most fire victims realise that this fire could not be stopped once it had got solidly underway and would have made allowances for mistakes. But those in charge refuse to admit that they made any!

Also, I take issue with several other comments by posters. Some people made money out of the fires (like Deek) but usually it was those who could sell-up because the kids had left home and those who had bought in recently and had full, up-to-date insurance rather than an old insurance policy in which the indexed premium over many years was based upon a National, not an ACT, rate for construction costs. Those who wanted to rebuild had to take into account costs nearly doubling because of lack of builders, tradesmen and materials. I know, I was one of them.

The Government paid $5000 to those who actually did rebuild on receipt of a Completion Certicficate. However meeting the new HQSD (High Quality Sustainable Development) regulations imposed after the fires cost more than the grant. No wonder only around 40% of people rebuilt on their burnt out blocks.

As for the fire which commenced on 8 February near Wayne West’s property in the Brindabellas being fought immediately, I suggest that poster check his facts with Wayne who is suing the NSW Government because it did not fight that fire promptly. I have seen the videos taken by the CSIRO on those first two days after the lightning strike and that fire could have been extinguished quite easily at that time. It was not inaccessible as claimed (I have been there) and was only a stone’s throw from the road.

I am glad this case has gone to Court even though I am not part of the class action. It will make it more difficult for governments and bureaucracies to ignore the next fire and not put out more adequate warnings.

Vader 2:48 pm 02 Mar 10

The day might have started out calm, but it wasn’t long before a howling northerly/north westerly wind picked up. This wind was responsible for dropping burning leaves and embers well ahead of the actual fire front – thus speeding up the fire’s propagation.

However, the 200kph winds which knocked down the pines were locally generated by the flames themselves, such was the intensity of the fire.

troll-sniffer 2:10 pm 02 Mar 10

“What, a strong easterly wind? (or was that westerly?) The fires themselves create winds, but the day started out with barely a breeze. When the wind changed, it wasn’t going at unheard of speeds.”

Probably better if you refrain from commenting if you have such a tenuous grasp of what unfolded on the day in question.

p1 2:01 pm 02 Mar 10

The fires themselves create winds, but the day started out with barely a breeze. When the wind changed, it wasn’t going at unheard of speeds.

The majority of the distance that the fires covered on that Saturday was grass fire. Grass fires go fast. Plus it got big, resulting in, as people have said, its own personal local weather.

I think the lesson that should have come out of this is that people who live a suburb which borders rural/forest land need to be prepared for the possibility of fire, even when they live in the Nations capital.

baldilocks 1:55 pm 02 Mar 10

There is only one certain result from the enquiry, and that is that the lawyers are going to walk away with buckets of money, win or lose.

Hmmm lets see, 12 week enquiry, 30 plus lawyers including many senior counsel, junior counsel, solicitors and various hangers on. Hearing costs alone will be $12m plus at minimum, and then double it again for all the backroom preparatory stuff going back some 7/8 years.

A lawyers picnic, and at the end of the day even if the plaintiffs win, the return to them will be chicken shite.

My favorite legal joke of all time was told to me by a local lawyer & the only one I’ve had dealings with and who I respect………

“Do Australian lawyers still take cases involving matters of principle?
Of course they do …………. provided they get their fees paid in full in advance”

Anyone going to a court in these “modern” times seeking JUSTICE is looking in the wrong place.

Very cynical, but unfortunately true.

Vader 1:50 pm 02 Mar 10

Urban Adventurer – the fires started on Wed 8th January and the first firefighters arrived at the fire ground that evening. By the time you went bushwalking, on the weekend of 11/12 January, the fires had been burning for several days and were well known. The following day (Mon 13th) was when Stanhopeless went for a dip in the Bendora Dam as he attempted (successfully) to save the pilot of a helicopter which had ditched while water bombing the fires.

The National Parks closed the northern half of Namadgi that weekend, with only the areas to the south of (and including) the Orroral Valley still open to the public.

The fires weren’t “left to burn” as you put it. Whether or not they were adequately fought is another matter, but there were already significant numbers of firefighters in action by that time.

MissChief 1:43 pm 02 Mar 10

Will legal costs and compensation come from No-hope’s purse or political party coffers? I think not! Get ready for more rate rises. 1:21 pm 02 Mar 10

troll-sniffer said :

What will doubtless be suppressed in this cash grab are the inescapable facts:

The particular localised weather conditions on the day were unheard of in this area.

What, a strong easterly wind? (or was that westerly?)

The fires themselves create winds, but the day started out with barely a breeze. When the wind changed, it wasn’t going at unheard of speeds.

troll-sniffer 11:53 am 02 Mar 10

All very well for the hindsighters of this world to grandstand for their 15 minutes of glory. What will doubtless be suppressed in this cash grab are the inescapable facts:

The particular localised weather conditions on the day were unheard of in this area. For the pine forests to have been laid down as they were, wind speeds of 200km/hr must have been present.

The nature of the land use between the Brindabellas and the suburban fringe of Canberra was assumed by people with fire fighting and management experience to be sufficient to control a worst case scenario blaze as it crossed open ground. In hindsight 200km/hr localised winds and combining westerlies across the rest of landscape rendered such (knowledgeable) assumptions incorrect.

Home owners on the fringes of the city have consistently refused to acknowledge that bushfire management is their responsibility as well as the authorities’. No surprises there, especially with smooth talking leeches around to dispel any doubts they may harbour as to levels of personal responsibility.

I believe that unless somehow a case of deliberate dereliction of duty by the authorities on the day can be proven without doubt, the decisions taken by the responsible officers be taken for what they were, the right risk-management decisions for the known threats.

In this society full of know-it-alls who act with perfection at all times even when faced with the most complicated and borderline decisions, it’s likely that the people who were faced with the actaul (non-theoretical) demands of the day will be assessed as incompetent and once millions of dollars have changed hands, smug lawyers and their charges will retire to their lounge rooms smug in the knowledge that justice has prevailed, given that if they had been in charge on the day none of the houses would have even smelt smoke let alone seen a fire. 10:54 am 02 Mar 10

I think the failure of the government was doing enough about the fires when they were in a managable condition prior to them becoming uncontrolable.

On the week end before the fires two friends and I wnt bush walking in Orroral Valley in Namadgi national park. We checked with the ranger’s office if it was safe and was told it was. When we got up the top end of the valley I looked up at the cloud that was sitting in one place over the mountain at the end of the valley. I suddenly realised it was not a cloud of water vapour, but a cloud of smoke. I recall saying “That’s not a cloud” and a friend looking up at it with sudden realisation and almost screaming “F@#k!” while the third friend who was a city lad said “What?”.

We all but ran back down the valley to the car park, got in the car and drove to the Tuggers police station (since I did not know where the fire station was) to report it.

The police were NOT interested, and made it plain that they were NOT interested. Nor were they interested in telling us where the fire station was. In fact, the only thing they were interested in was the food they were eating at the time. So I rang the fire brigade and told them.

This was a whole week before the fires finally hit Canberra itself. Even that day I heard nothing about them in the morning, only hearing about it when I got back from Sydney that afternoon.

So yeah, those fires were more or less left to burn from small managable fires to big huge ones that were not managable.

That said, many volonteer fire fighters themselves lost their cars which were parked on an oval which was later burned out.

chewy14 9:56 am 02 Mar 10

The funny thing about this is that I know lots of people who made a large amount of money out of having their house burn down. Sure they lost some precious possessions, but they made a massive cash windfall out of it.
I think its time to move on.

Power Protect 7:01 am 02 Mar 10

Higgins….the ACT GovCo will get a 12 month good behaviour bond.

Ceej1973 4:56 am 02 Mar 10

The Guvment knew about the potential for a once in a lifetime wildfire, and the destructiveness it could cause. I learnt in my college geography majors (ACT Govt sponsored and learning info supplied by,)that there was potential for 2 major catastophies. The 1st has already occured in Jan 2003, the 2nd is the potential for mass flooding of central Canberra with Civic under several meters of water “if” the Googong dam when full, failed or was/will be blown up. Therefore, the Guvment surely knew (if they were providing educational material to ACT College Geography students) that with the potential for catostrophic wildfire, they would also require fire/forest management that ensures tree plantations/nature reserves do not occur within 50 meters of suburban housing. True, when the fire/s started they were not wild fires. They can’t be sued over that. True, for that reason the fires eventually got out of control. They canot be sued for something that is out of their control. True there is great debate over whether regular controlled burn off is better or worse in controlling under growth. They cannot be sued over in-decisiveness. What they can be sued over, is the lack of forest management next to suburbia because, “they knew of the potential for loss of life”. You cannot avoid wild fire, and you cannot assign responsability to wild fire, but you can assign responsability for failing to preserve human life, and human life primarily resides in suburbia.

p1 11:17 pm 01 Mar 10

Just curious, if the people suing the gov’t win, then do they have to pay every person who lost anything of value, even those thoughtful enough to be insured? Or does the money then go the the insurance companies?

Bet the ANU would love that, Mt Stromlo was under insured by quite a lot I believe.

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