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Fire inquest reveals litany of blunders -

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Fire inquest reveals litany of blunders

Broadcast: 18/12/2007

Reporter: Mike Sexton

The coronial inquest into the Eyre Peninsula bushfires of 2005 has delivered its findings in Port
Lincoln. The fires claimed nine lives, 47,000 head of livestock, blackened around 77,000 hectares
of land, and destroyed 93 homes.

Transcript

ALI MOORE: Welcome to the program, I'm Ali Moore.

The South Australian Deputy Coroner today handed down his long anticipated report into the Black
Tuesday bushfires that killed nine people including four children in January 2005.

The report details a series of miscalculations and miscommunications among firefighters on the
ground and their senior officers in Adelaide that resulted in resources being denied until the fire
was out of control.

As authorities digest the hefty report, there are those critical of the coronial process, arguing
it does little to prevent a future bushfire.

Mike Sexton reports.

NATALIE BORLASE: I was at work and Karen, the lady I work with, she said, "is that raining outside,
it's so dark". We looked outside and the whole of Port Lincoln was covered in this thick, black,
red smoke, it just put us all in darkness basically.

MIKE SEXTON: On the 11th January 2005, what has become known on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula as
Black Tuesday, Natalie Borlase lost her two-year-old son Jack and three-year-old daughter Star to
one of the most ferocious bushfires in recorded history.

Her parents had been minding the children on a farm at Wanilla and tried to drive them to safety
but instead were caught up in the flames.

Her father was the only survivor.

NATALIE BORLASE: And when I got there I couldn't even believe that he was still alive, everything
was just charred and he was still alive and I said to him "where's mum and the kids?" And he said,
"they're in there." And he pointed to the Land Rover and I had a look and Mum and

Star and Jack and our dog were all in the car.

MIKE SEXTON: The Eyre Peninsula is South Australia's wheat belt, where most of the land is either
cropped or grazed. The fire that began with the spark from a defective car exhaust in a paddock on
Monday afternoon was controlled that evening by the Country Fire Service, only to be whipped up by
the fierce winds the next morning and race through tinder dry wheat stubble at a deadly speed.

By the time it had exhausted itself 24 hours later, the blaze had claimed nine lives, injured more
than 100 people, destroyed 90 homes and 46,000 head of livestock.

ANTHONY SCHAPEL, SA DEPUTY CORONER: The approach of the fire was very rapid. Many of the phased
warnings were mistimed and not particularly appropriate for the locations to which they were
directed. There was no evidence that any of the persons who lost their lives were relying on the
existence of, or accuracy or otherwise of, CFS phase warnings.

MIKE SEXTON: This morning South Australia's Deputy Coroner Anthony Schapel used the Point Lincoln
race course as a temporary courtroom to deliver his findings into the nine deaths. The hefty report
details a series of miscalculations by the CFS on Black Tuesday that resulted in no aerial bombing
being available nor earth breaks created.

According to the Deputy Coroner, miscommunications between senior CFS officers left them unaware
how seriously the fire was growing. As a result critical decisions were delayed.

EUAN FERGUSON, CFS CHIEF OFFICER: I quite frankly see no advantage in me stepping down. What's
really important is to sit back and objectively analyse what occurred. The state of the
organisation, what lessons can be learned and then move the organisation through a period of
positive change.

MIKE SEXTON: The 34 recommendations heavily emphasised fire fighting procedures and warnings and
suggests the South Australian Government consider buying a firefighting helicopter rather than
relying on the current practice of leasing one from interstate when needed.

KEVIN FOLEY, ACTING SA PREMIER: We will give serious consideration over the course of the next few
weeks as to whether or not from next season we'll have permanently placed in this State our own air
crane.

MIKE SEXTON: In preparing the report the coroner's court heard from 140 witnesses during eight
months of hearings but there are some who question whether such an exhaustive process helps.

NAOMI BROWN, AUSTRALIASIAN FIRE AUTHORITY COUNCIL: After any of the coronial processes, we lose a
number of both staff and volunteers, people who are totally burnt out by the process.

MIKE SEXTON: The Australasian Fire Authorities Council represents volunteer firefighters in all
States and believes inquiries such as this tend toward finding blame instead of solutions. It's
concerned that recent inquiries into fires in Canberra, Victoria and South Australia have drained
firefighting agencies of resources.

NAOMI BROWN: We think it costs somewhere in the region of about $14 million. This one in South
Australia would have cost many millions as did in Victoria some years ago. There was a Linton
inquiry and just one of the agencies, CFA, cost them $9 million. So there's a massive financial
cost to this which is drawing resources away from, I guess, more productive things that you can
actually do.

MIKE SEXTON: Gary Morgan is CEO of the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre. A body financed by
industry, universities, governments and fire brigades. His organisation's research shows most lives
are lost when there are wind changes and is urging a greater emphasis on understanding weather
patterns.

GARY MORGAN, BUSHFIRE CO-OP RESEARCH CENTRE: If we had better knowledge about when wind shifts were
going to occur and also in the planning and advice in the community about where the gridded winds
are, particularly in the local conditions and the impacts on valleys, particularly as you go into
the mountainous terrains in Australia. That would certainly help firefighters and the community.

MIKE SEXTON: As the people of Eyre Peninsula digest the report it's with the knowledge this will
not be the last judicial dealing with the fire as civil action is likely to be launched immediately
against the CFS and the owner of the vehicle which started the fire by 70 litigants, mostly
farmers.

Port Lincoln mayor Peter Davis believes if nothing else the report confirms that serious mistakes
were made but the community must now pull together.

PETER DAVIS, PORT LINCOLN MAYOR: It's disappointing to have confirmed our fears but on the other
hand we must learn from those mistakes, not blame.

ALI MOORE: That report from Mike Sexton.