ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the ACT will not engage in an “endless, circular blame game” with the Australian Defence Force (ADF) over the Orroral Valley bushfire after new images of the nascent blaze came to light on 21 January.
Pictures taken by the crew aboard the MRH-90 Taipan, which accidentally sparked the Territory’s worst bushfire since 2003 due to a faulty landing light, were released to the ABC under Freedom of Information laws. They reveal the damage the helicopter suffered as it scrambled away from the fire on 27 January, 2020.
Questions about why the helicopter crew could not radio in the location of the blaze – which went unreported by onboard ADF personnel until they landed at Canberra Airport 45 minutes later – have also resurfaced.
Mr Barr said he is not interested in “witch-hunts about Defence personnel”.
“Yes, it was regrettable that the incident occurred,” he said. “It was regrettable that they didn’t call it in earlier. What are we seeking to achieve in a witch-hunt? Absolutely nothing. So let’s move on.
“The only value in all of this, aside from a bit of media interest and potentially a witch-hunt against a couple of Defence Force personnel, is whether there are any lessons that can be learnt around the operation of that sort of equipment in a bushfire scenario.”
Mr Barr said what happened was an accident.
“We can learn from them, but we are not going to do ourselves any service and undo anything that has happened by having this endless, circular blame game,” he said.
“It does not achieve anything; nothing at all. There are many, many other things [the ACT Government] has to focus on at the moment … not offering endless commentary on things that happened a year ago that has absolutely nothing to do with the ACT Government.”
The ACT is still pursuing the Federal Government for compensation regarding the Orroral Valley bushfire to help with the recovery cost. The Federal Government has agreed to compensate the ACT Government up to $10 million for the damage it caused.
An ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate spokesperson told Region Media in December 2020 that the government had commenced a claims process through its own insurers with the Commonwealth’s insurers.
A Defence spokesperson said the helicopter crew called in a ‘PAN-PAN’ – a radio broadcast that signifies an urgent situation but does not pose immediate danger to life – relaying the “inflight emergency situation” to Canberra Air Traffic Control and their higher military commanders.
“Addressing the potentially catastrophic risks to crew and aircraft was the crew’s immediate priority, and the focus of their radio traffic during the flight to safety,” said the spokesperson. “Notifications were made as soon as was reasonably practicable.”
The person taking the photos was an Australian Defence Force member who was not part of the aircrew, said Defence.
“Passengers do not have means of external communication to air traffic control or civil emergency services while aboard an aircraft,” said a Defence spokesperson.
“Only the aircrew are on external radio nets while in flight.”
Defence did not answer questions about why crew members could not have relayed the fire’s location during the 45-minute flight to Canberra Airport.
It took ACT Emergency Services 17 minutes to spot the smoke from the bushfire from the Mount Tennent fire tower before the location was finally confirmed by a spotter aircraft around 48 minutes after ignition, by which time the fire had grown significantly.
The bushfire burnt 78 per cent of Namadgi National Park and 22 per cent of Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, sparking the ACT’s first state of emergency since 2003.