28 April 2020

Making sense of a brutal summer: ACT committee to review bushfire season

| Michael Weaver
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Orroral Valley fire. Namadgi National Park Photo: Michael Weaver, Region Media

The Gudgenby Valley near Mt Namadgi after the Orroral Valley fire. Photos: Michael Weaver.

An ACT Legislative Assembly committee will try to make sense of summer’s devastating bushfire season, analysing how the emergency played out across the community.

The Standing Committee on Justice and Community Safety will conduct a review into responses by the ACT’s emergency services which will also help shape how authorities tackle the 2020-21 bushfire season.

The scope of the review will range from the preparation, education and public communication, to actions by agencies at the height of the bushfires during the summer of 2019-20.

The review will be conducted in addition to the Federal Government’s Bushfire Royal Commission, which is due to report by the end of August, and the NSW Government’s independent expert inquiry into the 2019-20 bushfire season.

The committee will be chaired by the Shadow Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Giulia Jones, with panel members Bec Cody and Deepak-Raj Gupta.

Mrs Jones said the review will allow the Legislative Assembly and the ACT community to have a discussion about the 2019-20 bushfire season.

“Everybody agrees that we did better this time than in 2003 and not just because the fire was coming from a different angle, but because the communication and information were handled much better,” Mrs Jones told Region Media.

“There are still things that people have been critical of, so it’s an opportunity for the community to have its say.”

Tharwa Country Store

Owner of the Tharwa Country Store and Rural Fire Service member, Kevin Jeffery.

Tharwa Community Association president and volunteer firefighter with the ACT Rural Fire Service Kevin Jeffery said a lot of money was wasted painting the forests pink when the real threat from the Orroral Valley fire had already crossed the ACT border and was threatening towns such as Bumbalong and Bredbo in NSW.

“The aerial assets were used totally ineffectively. One of my crews from Tharwa found that when these aerial crews come in and put water or retardant on a fire, your firefighters have to back off.

“The retardant hits the top of the trees and by the time the crews can get back in there, one section of the fire had crossed a road and they’d temporarily lost control of it.”

Mr Jeffery said he would like to make a submission to the review or the Royal Commission but has been busy keeping his business at the Tharwa Country Store afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’d switched off the bushfires a bit, but there’s probably plenty of words that the old man wrote that I could repurpose,” he said.

Mrs Jones said she hopes people haven’t forgotten about the summer’s bushfires and urges people to use the ACT review as an opportunity to offer solutions to the problems they encountered.

“There are strong opinions out there and it’s our role in a democracy, whether there’s another crisis or not, to give those people a chance to have a say in a meaningful way that will effect change,” she said.

With the ACT Emergency Services Agency (ESA) having seen the retirements of the head of the Rural Fire Service, Joe Murphy, and chief officer of ACT Fire and Rescue, Mark Brown, there is also the opportunity for fresh ideas to drive the two agencies.

“Those positions are often held for a very long time and so maybe it’s an opportunity for someone fresh to come in and maybe do things better,” Mrs Jones said.

She said the review won’t work in tandem with the Bushfire Royal Commission but will canvass the results and experience from experts, the government and the community, especially volunteers who contributed during the bushfire season.

A spokesperson for the ACT Emergency Services Agency told Region Media it is already well down the path of reviewing and learning from the 2019-20 bushfire season.

“The ESA welcomes any inquiry into the 2019-20 bushfire season, and any opportunity to reflect on its performance,” the ESA spokesperson said. “While a lot was done well last season, directorates and agencies continuously review their performance and what they can improve on.”

The ESA said this work is being done through several after-action reviews (AARs).

“The ESA’s priority is to consolidate all the comments received through the AARs, identify areas of improvement and put actions in place to address the areas of improvement. This work will assist us in preparing for the 2020-21 bushfire season.”

People wishing to make a submission to the review need to do so before 1 July. The final report is expected in August.

For information about how to make a submission, see the Getting involved page on the ACT Legislative Assembly website.

Original Article published by Michael Weaver on The RiotACT.

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