‘I felt like, well, I lit the fire that burnt down Canberra’

Ari 12 March 2007 21

It’s going to be an interesting week in for both local and NSW politics once tonight’s Four Corners program on the 2003 bushfires goes to air.

A couple of choice quotes (via AAP):

“One of the paid staff of the RFS said: ‘Oh, it’s only s..t country, it’s burning pretty slow, why not let it burn’ and they all seized on that as a brilliant idea and that was the end of the meeting,” Mr Cathles tells ABC TV’s Four Corners in a program to be aired tonight.

“They actually decided by consensus to do nothing and I sort of lived with this a year or two and I ultimately wrote to the coroner, Maria Doogan, and told her this.”


“I felt like, well, I lit the fire that burnt down Canberra,” [volunteer firefighter Hugh Patterson] told Four Corners.

“I was there with hundreds of other firefighters lighting backburns and you know, somewhere or other those fires grew to become the fires that swept into Canberra.

“It’s not a rational analysis of the history of the fire. But it is traumatic for me and it still weighs on my mind, as I guess a personal failure.”

These people on the ground felt like they failed, but surely they can take comfort in Jon Stanhope’s words immediately after the event (once the post-dinner party hangover had worn off): “If you want to blame someone, blame me.”

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21 Responses to ‘I felt like, well, I lit the fire that burnt down Canberra’
TCF TCF 11:34 pm 16 Mar 07

The video footage shown was a spotfire of the main McIntyre’s Hut fire, i.e. A fire started downwind by embers from the main fire. If you care to note Phil Cheney’s interview in the show, he specifically says that the CSIRO researchers were out searching for spotfires. The Coroner’s report also backs up that statement.

I believe the incident controller on the 8th (NSW NPWS) made the right decision not to make a direct attack on the main fire that day, as it had grown from a single lightning strike to a 200ha fire in a matter of hours. Photo evidence of the smoke produced from the main McIntyre’s Hut fire that day can be found here:

It might be easy to drive in close to the fire front for a look in a standard 4wd and then turn around and retreat, but it is a totally different story for a couple of 15 tonne fire truck’s with 6 lives on board. Further to that, if everyones such an expert on firefighting and more importantly fire fighter safety, I’m sure the ACTRFS could use some arm chair experts after all their real experience unfortunately just resigned.

Ari Ari 3:11 pm 15 Mar 07

That would be two much to bear.

teddy bear teddy bear 3:07 pm 15 Mar 07

Sorry – must be two teddies around here.

teddy bear teddy bear 2:52 pm 15 Mar 07

So smokey4 – are you saying that sending in units to the McIntyres Hut fire on the 8th and 9th of January 2003 would have been a “suicide mission”?

teddy bear teddy bear 2:51 pm 15 Mar 07

So smokey4 – are you saying that sending in units to the McIntyres Hut fire on the 8th and 9th of January 2003 would have been a “suicide mission”?

smokey4 smokey4 9:44 pm 14 Mar 07

So if someone had done somthing different it would be a different outcome. We can all be heroes with hindsight. Fires are dangerous and unpredictable. Who cares 4 years down the track what Koperburger said. In a fire situation we are all responsible for our own safety. This has been the case in Victoria since Feb 16th 1983 and its about time the rest of this country got the same message. If you are waiting for detailed instructions and a public statement and you are in an area threatened by fire then it is to late. If you expect fire fighters to go in when there is a high risk they will not return then do not expect that as it probably will not happen. I have been in situations where we lost trucks and crews. Commanders are not permitted to send crews on potential suicide missions. Crew safety is paramount.

teddy bear teddy bear 9:34 am 13 Mar 07

I agree with Barking Toad and Thumper. Does anyone have any info about about an alleged meet/conversation between Koperburg and his fire controller, Bruce Arthur, on 12 January where it was conceded that the fires would enter Canberra suburbs if the forecast weather conditions materialised? Also, regarding TCF’s comment on the McIntyres versus Baldy Range fire. I have a copy of the entire CSIRO video in which the words “McIntyres Hut Fire – 8 January 2003” is embedded into the film. Did CSIRO experts get it wrong or is TCF suggesting that they were trying to mislead? If so that is rather damning. The video revisits the McIntyres Hut fire on following days also. Was this also Baldy Range?

Thumper Thumper 8:06 am 13 Mar 07

There is, of course, two issues here.

One, the stuff up by NSW RFS, and two, the incompetance shown by the ACT government.

Both are equally galling.

And man, did those TV images bring back some memories!

barking toad barking toad 8:02 am 13 Mar 07

The experts in ESB predicted months previously what was likely given possible conditions but when it happened failed to act.

The program confirmed what was told to the Coroner. If the fires started by the lightning strikes had been attacked aggressively on that night and the following days they could have been extinguished before the prevailing winds changed.

That they weren’t is a failure of the management in ACT and NSW. That failure can’t be sheeted hane to the mayor and his council.

What can be sheeted home to the mayor and his council is the failure to provide sufficient warning to the residents of Canberra once it became apparent what was likely to happen.

ant ant 3:28 am 13 Mar 07

I’m putting here a link to a weather forum, where a bunch of us predicted exactly what would happen. Never dreaming that the fires would be allowed to build as they did, and do what they did.
The thread was started on January 7th. We watched those storms build and the lightning strike (we can see strikes on the lighting tracker). And then it all unfolded. It’s quite a read, as the thread goes for many pages, but what happened was predicted by myself and many others. So why did the “experts” in charge not predict it and prevent it?


TCF TCF 11:48 pm 12 Mar 07

The fire shown on tonights 4 Corners show was a smaller spot fire located on Baldy Range, not the larger McIntyres hut fire that it was portrayed as.
Section 5.2.8 of the Coroners report provides more information on the behaivour of the fires in the McIntyres hut area.

cranky cranky 9:48 pm 12 Mar 07

I have been enlightened by watching the 4 Corners episode this evening.
It was gratifying to have confirmed the total indiference to quelling the original fire source I have previously railed about.
I am pleased that the broadcast backed up the claims of Wayne West (whom I know but hold no candle for), and hope he may obtain some justice from the litany of wrong decisions made regarding this fire event.

simbo simbo 9:42 pm 12 Mar 07

‘If you’re going to blame anyone, blame me’

Yeah, but VG, you’ve been in the force long enough not to trust any old loony who instantly confesses, haven’t you? In fact, isn’t confessing to things you haven’t committed usually the sign of a narcacisstic need for attention?

Like, well, most politicians?

el el 9:27 pm 12 Mar 07

I’d recommend setting aside a good chunk of time to read a bit (or all) of it, Seepi.

Maelinar Maelinar 8:38 pm 12 Mar 07

Seepi; you won’t.

You will find a long and complex version though – it’s intentional.

seepi seepi 6:21 pm 12 Mar 07

Teddy what did Maria say about why Canberra wasn’t warned? I haven’t found a short and simple version of her finding anywhere.

teddy bear teddy bear 5:41 pm 12 Mar 07

There were two main questions that fire victims had. Why they were not warned (answered by Maria Doogan) and why the fire was not put out on the 8th and 9th of January. That answer needs to be provided by NSW. You should see during the Four Corners screening that the fire at MacIntyres Hut was relatively benign according to video taken by the CSIRO Research Foresters. Flames were around to 30cm to 60cm high with light winds. Questions we want answered are what happened to all the resources that NSW said that they could provide the ACT on 15th January, why were the large number of brigades gathered on the NSW/ACT border at places like Yass, Queanbeyan and Michelago refused entry into the ACT by the NSW Rural Fire Service, what happened to the fire units that were reportedly brought up from Kempsey under police escort on 18th January, and did Phil Koperburg raise the prospect of the fires reaching Canberra suburbs during a conversation with his fire controller Bruce Arthur on 12 January 2003 with the comment that if forecast weather conditions were to materialise then Canberra would burn.

terubo terubo 4:25 pm 12 Mar 07

The law of introspective self-flagellation.
No cure, other than to “get over it”.

louise louise 3:47 pm 12 Mar 07

Poor Hugh Patterson. It’s really not fair.

Experiencing failure is an occupational hazard for bushfire fighters. Strangely, those who feel the worst were the troops on the ground who were really the least to blame. Those who made the strategic decisions, and even those the buck stopped with, are now those who appear to have no feelings of guilt/remorse/regret at all. There must be some law or another for that: The law of inverse responsibility?

vg vg 2:20 pm 12 Mar 07

‘If you’re going to blame anyone, blame me’

Jon Stanhope, 2003

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