Friday, February 20, 2015

The Mystique of the 2003 Canberra Bushfires, Part 2

The Mystique of the 2003 Canberra Bushfires, Part 2

By Satsuki Ranjou
Spirit News
November 23, 2073

The ACT Government established the McLeod Inquiry to examine and report on the operational response to the bushfires. The Inquiry was headed by Ron McLeod, a former Commonwealth Ombudsman. The Inquiry handed down its findings on 1 August 2003.

The inquiry found that:

  • The fires, started by lightning strikes, might have been contained, had they been attacked more aggressively in the 24 hours after they broke out. Large stretches of dry, drought-affected vegetation and weather conditions that were extremely conducive to fire meant that once the fires reached a certain size, they were very difficult to control.
  • Management of fuel load in parks and adequate access to remote areas were both lacking.
  • Emergency service personnel performed creditably, but they were overwhelmed by the intensity of the fires and the unexpected speed of their advance on 18 January.
  • A comprehensive ACT Emergency Plan was in place at the time of the fire; it worked, particularly in recovery after the fires, in dealing with the large number of people who needed temporary shelter and assistance as a consequence of the fires.
  • Inadequacies in the physical construction and layout of the Emergency Services Bureau centre in Curtin were a hindrance. The centre was unable to handle efficiently the large amount of data and communications traffic into and out of the centre at the height of the crisis.
  • There were some equipment and resourcing deficiencies within the ACT's emergency service organisations.
  • Information and advice given to the community about the progress of the fires, the seriousness of the threat, and the preparations the public should be making was seriously inadequate. There was also confusion as to whether homes had to be evacuated.
  • The Inquiry recommended there should be increased emphasis given to controlled burning as a fuel-reduction strategy, access to and training of emergency personnel in remote areas needed to be improved and a number of changes be made to the emergency services and the policies that govern their operations, including a greater emphasis on provision of information to the public.

The Coroner's inquiry commenced in January 2003, and hearing officially opened on 16 June 2003. The Coroner's Court of the Australian Capital Territory conducted an inquiry into the cause, origin, and circumstances of the 2003 bushfires and inquests into the four deaths associated with those fires. The inquiry was under the provisions of the ACT Coroners Act 1997.

The inquiry was marked by controversy, and in February 2005 the ACT Supreme Court heard an application that the coroner be disqualified due to bias. The inquiry into the fires was on hold until August 2005, when the Full Bench of the Supreme Court delivered its decision, declaring that Coroner Maria Doogan should not be disqualified on the ground of a reasonable apprehension of bias. The inquiry reconvened on 17 August 2005.

After over 90 days of examining the evidence, the inquiry wrapped up on 25 October 2005. Although the inquiry was supposed to be completed in early 2006, submissions continued into mid-2006, with the Coroner delivering her findings, "The Canberra Firestorm", in December 2006.

On 18 January 2006, three years after the day of the bushfires, a bushfire memorial was opened on land which had been affected by the fires in Stromlo forest. The ACT Bushfire Memorial was commissioned by the ACT government to acknowledge the impact of the fires and thank the many organisations and individuals who played crucial roles in the fire fighting and recovery efforts.

The memorial was designed by Canberra artists Tess Horwitz, Tony Steel and Martyn Jolly and incorporates elements requested by the ACT community. It is a journey from the day of the fire, through the process of recovery, to the honouring of memory.

The entrance memorial walls are made from the community's salvaged bricks, which are inscribed with messages of grief and gratitude. Beyond the walls, a site framed by a grove of casuarinas contains red glass and metal forms, referring to the force of the firestorm and to the lightning strikes that sparked the main fires. An avenue leads to an amphitheatre enclosing a pond and bubbling spring. Glass columns bordering the pond contain details from photos provided by the community which speak of memory and human resilience.

On 18 February 2006, an independent group of fire victims installed a plaque to honour the four people who died in the fires and the volunteer firefighters who fought so hard. The plaque is located at the end of the walkway to the memorial, immediately before the memorial walls. Fire victims and residents held a simple ceremony to mark the occasion.