29 July 2021

Cause of Orroral Valley fire under spotlight as Chief Coroner launches inquiry

| Dominic Giannini
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Orroal Valley fire

A photo of the start of the Orroral Valley fire taken from the helicopter which accidentally started the blaze. Photo: Department of Defence.

ACT Chief Coroner Lorraine Walker will hold an inquiry into the cause of the Orroral Valley fire that burned 78 per cent of Namadgi National Park and 22 per cent of the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.

The landing light of an MRH-90 Taipan helicopter is believed to have sparked the fire on 27 January 2020 while trying to clear landing zones in Namadgi.

The inquiry will specifically look at the 45 minutes between the fire’s inception and when ACT emergency services were notified of the fire’s location by Army personnel.

READ MORE Defence crew did not alert ESA to Orroral fire location for 45 minutes

It took emergency services personnel 17 minutes to spot smoke from the nascent fire from the Mount Tennent fire tower. The location was confirmed by spotter aircraft around 48 minutes after ignition and 29 minutes after the smoke was first seen.

Just 10 minutes after the helicopter crew started to notify authorities, Rural Fire Service members were standing back because of the fire’s size.

Defence personnel did not pass on the fire’s location until after they had landed the damaged helicopter at Canberra Airport, 45 minutes after sparking the fire.

Fire-damaged helicopter

The damage sustained on the helicopter that accidentally ignited the Orroral Valley fire. Photo: Department of Defence.

Crews were issued with a “blackout message” to “advise no external comms regarding work activities” just minutes after landing.

A Defence spokesperson said this was because the primary focus of the aircrew was the safety of the people on board and the aircraft.

However, the ABC reported that Defence was also concerned about possible reputational damage from the fire.

The Department of Defence refused to release the findings of an internal investigation into the matter.

The department did not confirm that the helicopter was the source of the ignition to ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan or Chief Minister Andrew Barr until the following afternoon, despite having talking points that were fact-checked and ready for release by 5:20 pm.

The documents said that the “ACT ESA were informed of the location of the fire as soon as practicable”.

Georgeina Whelan

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan was not told of the fire’s ignition source by the Department of Defence until the following afternoon. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Chief Coroner Walker said the fire was of public significance and an inquiry into the matter was appropriate given the circumstances.

“It is in the public interest that all relevant matters concerning the cause and origin of the fire – and the actions taken to respond to it – are fully considered,” she said.

“In light of reports which have been provided to government to date, it is my intention at the present time that the inquiry be limited to the approximately 45 minutes between the ignition of the fire and the subsequent communication of its location to the ACT ESA.”

Original Article published by Dominic Giannini on The RiotACT.

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