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Rees defends CFA on Black Saturday -

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Rees defends CFA on Black Saturday

The World Today - Tuesday, 9 June , 2009 12:22:00

Reporter: Samantha Donovan

PETER CAVE: The chief officer of Victoria's Country Fire Authority has told the Bushfires Royal
Commission in Melbourne this morning that his authority's systems worked well on the day and
everyone did the best they could.

Russell Rees said at no time on Black Saturday did he consider it necessary to recommend a state of
disaster be called.

Samantha Donovan is at the commission. She joins us now.

Russell Rees has been on the stand before, hasn't he?

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Yes, he has Peter. He was called on the first day and has been back several times
since. He's given countless hours of evidence to date. He's been on the stand to explain just what
he was doing on Black Saturday as the head of Victoria's Country Fire Authority, his awareness and
understanding of conditions on the day and just how the Country Fire Authority went about issuing
warnings on Black Saturday.

PETER CAVE: What's been the focus of the Royal Commission this morning?

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Well, the focus has again been the adequacy, or at times complete lack of
warnings, on Black Saturday. What went wrong with the warnings is, of course, one of the main
things that the royal commissioners need to work out.

Counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Jack Rush QC, has been concentrating on the warnings for
the Kilmore East fire this morning. As we know there was no warning for towns like Kinglake where
38 people died and Strathewen where 27 people died.

Russell Rees has said today that he knew the fires would be, in his words, "prolific" in their
spotting. He has also said that he didn't see any maps predicting the course of the Kilmore East
fire on Black Saturday.

This is an important point because earlier in his evidence Mr Rees said he wasn't aware that fire
behaviour experts like one of the key witnesses Dr Kevin Tolhurst were at the Incident Emergency
Control Centre in East Melbourne on the day but today he's corrected that evidence and said he was
aware that they were there in the building but has confirmed that he didn't see any of the
predictive maps, and we know that Dr Tolhurst and his team did in fact prepare a map that showed
the threat the Kilmore East fire posed to several towns but warnings never reached those
communities.

PETER CAVE: Have the exchanges been a bit testy?

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: They've been fairly measured I would say Peter, though every now and again a tone
of disbelief seems to come through in some of Jack Rush QC's questions to Russell Rees.

Here is some of what Mr Rush put to Mr Rees this morning.

JACK RUSH: As I understand your evidence, you didn't consider a state of disaster call. I will just
take it one step at a time.

RUSSELL REES: No I did not.

JACK RUSH: Why not?

RUSSELL REES: For me, despite what a lot of people may think, the systems on that day worked very,
very well. We had an unprecedented event in unprecedented weather. We have responded and delivered
outcomes in an unprecedented way. We put more people and more fire trucks and more effort into this
day than we put into the entire 2002/2003 campaign.

We had more people in the field, more effort and it was done despite the fact that there were
failings and shortcomings, in an outstanding way.

PETER CAVE: Russell Rees. Has his attitude remained consistent right through?

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: No, there has been quite a marked change of attitude I think in Mr Rees'
evidence, Peter, throughout the course of the commission. A few weeks ago there was no sense of a
regret or apology given what unfolded on Black Saturday.

Last week though, he did offer an apology saying that although the Country Fire Authority did its
very best on Black Saturday, there were obviously problems and it has been reported that the CFA
has actually retained the services of a public relations expert because they were so concerned that
their reputation was taking a hammering at the hearings and there were also calls from the
Victorian National Party for the CFA to get its own legal representation at the Royal Commission
hearings but so far they are sticking with the Victorian Government's solicitors.

PETER CAVE: Samantha Donovan reporting.