Colin Barnett, the Premier of Western Australia, said yesterday that there will be no inquiry into how the emergency services handled the recent fires in the Perth hills that destroyed 72 houses.  He said that there was no need for an inquiry because it was handled “brilliantly” with no loss of life despite the destruction of 72 houses.  Well, perhaps he would think it even more brilliant if 200 houses had been destroyed in the fire, with no loss of life.

Premier Barnett does not seem to understand that something very unusual has happened — a bushfire has swept into the suburbs of a major city and burnt down a large number of houses.  The instances, of a bushfire sweeping into a major city suburb in Australia are very few.  I can think of only two examples.  

First, the Hobart fire of February 1967 destroyed over 1200 homes and caused great loss of life.  Days of high temperatures and winds of 120 km/h created a fire storm.  Second, in January 2003 over 400 houses were destroyed in Western Creek in Canberra and four lives were lost.  That was after the Mount Stromlo pine plantation became an inferno that rained burning embers the size of softballs all over Western Creek.  See a photo of a pine plantation fire here to understand what Canberra faced in 2003.  There have also been houses lost in the lower Blue Mountains outside Sydney over the years, but that doesn’t qualify as a suburb of a major city.

The fire in the suburb of Kelmscott in Perth, where most of the houses were lost, was nothing like the Canberra or Hobart fires.  It started in bushland where the suburbs meet the bush at about midday on a the type of day that in not very unusual in Perth in summer.  Fire conditions were bad but not extreme.  I was at my home, in the Perth hills, on that day.  It was 30C and there were strong winds from the south-east.  But somehow a small fire got out of control and burnt into the suburb of Kelmscott.

The boundary between the major cities and the bush is Australia is long — certainly over 1000 kms in total.  A fire starting in the bush and moving toward the suburbs has happened a thousand times in the last 50 years, and in all but a very few occasions the fire has been extinguished before a suburb in engulfed.  My understanding is that the reason fires can be put out on the edge of suburbs is because the fire engines have good access and mobility along the sealed roads of the suburb.  And, even more important they have access to the high pressure water lines — lots and lots of water.

For some reason a the fire in Kelmscott on Sunday, which seemed to be not unlike many, many fires before it, burnt into the suburb before it was put out.  The public needs to know why that happened.  Why was the fire brigade unable to defend those houses?  Why did something that has only happened in Australia a few times before — and under the most extreme circumstances — happen in Perth on Sunday 6 February 2011?  Was the fire brigade under resourced?  Did they arrive late?  Was there a breakdown in control?  Was there equipment failure?  What happened?  It may be that an extraordinary combination of events conspired to foil a well executed defence by the fire brigade: Perth has suffered its driest year on record after all.  But I would like to hear that from a panel of external experts.

I am not questioning the commitment or courage of the firefighters.  I realise they are risking their lives for the community and when it is their turn to go they go.  But, in these days of increasing accountability of the providers of public services and the mySchool and myHospital websites everybody is accountable for their performance.  The Barnett Government is ignoring the need for accountability and simply asserting that the performance of the emergency services cannot be brought into question.  But something very unusual happened in that fire and good government demands that the public knows what it is.

6 Responses to "myFire_brigade"
  1. I spent Christmas at Roleystone in my parents’ new house, and I can understand why the fire was so hard to fight. The location of the main part of the fire as explained in the alerts was in a heavily treed area that was very hilly. I would guess that there were significant portions of it that a fire truck could never reach, so there was no way to cut it off at the source. That particular road where the bridge was burnt down is set on the side of a hill with a big drop off one side. There was certainly no chance of them doing controlled burns in front of the fire to deny it fuel, as the houses are built right on top of the forest.
    I was following the alerts as they came up on the day, and it sounded like they had enough resources. Not only did they draw people and equipment from all over Perth, they also had two Victorian units with a helicopter IIRC. The speed of the fire was 100 metres per hour at its worst, which is a decent clip.
    There are some places like Kinglake or Mount Macedon in Victoria where the houses are within touching distance of the bush so there is very little that a fire crew can do when conditions are at its worst, and Roleystone is the same.

  2. Paul
    It said in the West Australian today that 4 fire trucks went immediately to the scene and contained the fire.  They told other trucks that were approaching the scene to stand down, and then the fire blew up again and could not be contained.
    Graham Geer, the secretary of the Firefighters Union has called for an independent inquiry into what went wrong.  Apparently the firefighters feel tremendous frustration at their inability to stop the fire burning into the suburb, as you can imagine.
    I am genuinely not having a go at the commitment and courage of the firefighters.  But, in any process that involves human decision making mistakes will be made.  When those mistakes are large we need to get to the bottom of it.  So, my criticism is of Premier Barnett and his blithe statement that the fighting of the fire was conducted ‘brilliantly’ so no independent inquiry is needed.

  3. Sam, Yes I don’t know a huge amount about that fire but 2 things were clear.
    1. The Perth hills had unusually high speed and sustained blustery winds in that week,
    2. The aerial photos I saw showed comparatively minor bush damage and houses completely destroyed. The question this brought to mind was: Were these houses defendable and are we being overcautious due to the astounding confluence of events that gave rise to the tragedy at King Lake?
    I could imagine a parallel where, after the floods in Queensland we are going to see houses and suburbs designed for hundred year floods, even in non-floodprone areas.
    So I agree with you that we have to learn continually, both from under and over cautious reactions.
    BR Richard

  4. Why not just a debrief by the force?  Why this unique Australian procylivity for expensive inquiries that don’t achieve much.

    You got it, mistakes will be made. Particularly by people who build houses on the edge of bushland.

  5. “There have also been houses lost in the lower Blue Mountains outside Sydney over the years, but that doesn’t qualify as a suburb of a major city.”
    Around 150 houses were destroyed in Sydney in <a href=””>1994</a>.

  6. The thing with Roleystone – and I hear the same was true of Kinglake and Mount Macedon – is that not only are they built on the edge of the bush, they are surrounded by bush on all sides, and incorporate the bush into their properties. Thus on my parent’s block, the portion of the block that is not taken up by the building envelope was left as pristine bushland, with all of the trees, ferns and undergrowth that fuels a fire. These quarter-acre blocks are not stripped down to bare grass. The residents take it as a point of pride that their properties look like they are hewn out of raw forest, with as much bracken and greenery left in as possible. This may make the suburb look authentically rural, but it makes fighting fires that rip in from the real bush virtually impossible to fight in the wrong conditions.

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