2006 Grose Valley Fire – a cover up?

Burnt Blue Gum Forest
[Photo by Nick Moir, Sydney Morning Herald, 20-Dec-2006]

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The catastrophic Grose Valley wildfire in the Blue Mountains between 13th Nov to 3rd Dec 2006 destroyed 14,070 hectares of high conservation value bushland in and around the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area including raging through the ecologically sacred Blue Gum Forest, regarded as the ‘birth of conservation‘ in Australia.

No one has since tried to estimate the loss of fauna, not even the National Parks and Wildlife Service charged with protecting this World Heritage.

Walking through the Grose Valley now no native animals can be seen because they are probably now locally extinct.

In the days that followed came natural human responses from many:

  • a mix of wanting to know what happened and why
  • of questioning the response
  • of questioning the delay in putting out those early fires
  • why the massive back burning that itself become more of a threat to property at Blackheath
  • to operational judgment and decision making
  • to over-ruling interference from bushfire command
  • to communications problems
  • why the precious Grose Valley was not defended?
  • to value judgments that reduced National Park values to a hazard reduction opportunity
  • why was the Zig Zag Railway station fire bombed during the operations?
  • why was hazard reduction along Hartley Vale Road initiated at the time?
  • Did it in fact get out of control, cross the Darling Causeway and become he main fire front contributing to the conflagration of 23rd November?
  • why were many volunteers too scared to come forward to tell the truth at the time ?
  • was bushfire management culture that intimidating?

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The bushfire management authorities – the NPWS, RFS, NSW Fire Brigade and the Blue Mountains City Council convened an ‘internal review’ into the Grose Fire(s) at Katoomba on 17th December 2006 .  The public were not invited nor permitted to attend.   There were no publicised minutes nor notes nor action items.

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Burning Issues / Fire and the Future

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A number of concerned residents (143 to be exact) from Blackheath and across the Upper Blue Mountains met and drafted an open letter in the local Blue Mountains Gazette newspaper.

It’s final draft of 29-Nov-2006 read as follows:

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‘As long-term residents we are very familiar with the serious bush fire threat in the Blue Mountains. Fire will continue to be a part of the local environment and residents’ lives.

We gratefully acknowledge the efforts of everybody involved in working to control the recent Grose Valley fire – the volunteers, professionals and all agencies.  We note that the overall Grose Valley fire operation was successful in protecting the community, that there have been many improvements in fire management and that no fire operation can be perfect.

We also love the World Heritage bushland in which we are so lucky to live.  As a community we have undertaken an obligation to protect this unique World Heritage area and to manage it in a truly sustainable way for future generations.

The Grose Valley fire has highlighted some major fire management concerns for residents, the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and its fragile ecosystems.

Backburning

Fire suppression is a very complex and challenging task where judgments have to be made in what can be very difficult circumstances.  Backburning can be one of those choices.  We support well-planned backburning and appreciate that it can be a very useful tool.

However, we are concerned that large-scale backburning in severe fire weather can also be a highly dangerous option, spreading the fire, placing more lives at risk, swelling costs and causing wider damage to property and the environment.

Local involvement

Local knowledge and experience are vital to efficient and effective fire strategies and operations.  Local volunteers and others should be given the involvement and support they deserve during fire events.  The generosity of volunteers should be honoured with sound decision-making.

More fire

Large parts of the Grose Valley have now been burnt three times in 13 years and four times in 24 years.  Most of these fires have been of human origin.  The ecosystems cannot sustain such frequent fire without damage.  This time the beautiful Blue Gum Forest has felt the full brunt of the crisis with the understorey and much of the tree canopy burnt.

Research and recent experience shows that severe fires are happening more often.  If we don’t learn how to manage fires better in this landscape there will be increased threat to local communities and dire consequences for Blue Mountains ecosystems.

Cost

It has been stated that the cost of aircraft alone was $500,000 a day during the Grose Valley fire.  The final cost will be at least $10 million – without including the ‘hidden’ costs for volunteers.  The ongoing cost of the impacts, repairs and restoration will add more.  This exceeds the total annual funding for the million-hectare World Heritage Area, and is many times the budget for fire planning and management across the Blue Mountains.

Looking to the future

Lessons can be learned from the Grose Valley fire.  We must grasp this opportunity to review what was done, so improvements can continue for the Blue Mountains and other fire-prone areas.

We call on the New South Wales government to:

 

  1. Undertake a thorough, independent review of the Grose Valley fire, with particular reference to the following points:
      1. whether initial suppression was timely and adequate,
      2. whether resources were used appropriately and supported properly,
      3. whether the strategies adopted were the best available under the circumstances,
      4. whether other strategies of closer containment could have offered lower risk to the community, better firefighter safety, higher probabilities of success, lower costs and less impact on the environment, and
      5. whether the costs were appropriate.
  2. Fund more research for a better understanding of fire in the Blue Mountains landscape and methods for fire mitigation and suppression.
  3. Improve training in strategies for controlling fires in large bushland areas.
  4. Improve pre-fire planning to assist decision-making during incidents.
  5. Ensure adequate funding is available for post-fire restoration, including the rehabilitation of critical damage in the World Heritage area.
  6. Improve systems to ensure that local fire planning, knowledge and expertise is fully utilised during incidents, and that the protection of the natural and cultural values of World Heritage areas and other heritage assets are fully considered.

It’s easy to breathe a sigh of relief and just be grateful that it’s all over.  That would be a mistake – because there will be a next time, perhaps sooner than we all hope.

Supported by the following citizens of the Blue Mountains’.

(143 citizens names were listed)

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Blue Gum Lessons

On 20-Dec-2006, the Editor published a letter to the editor in the local Blue Mountains Gazette as follows:

“One of our most precious natural heritage assets, the Blue Gum Forest, has been allowed to be scorched by bushfire. This demands an independent enquiry into current fire fighting practices to ensure such a tragedy is not repeated.

Not a witch hunt, but what is needed is a constructive revision into improving bushfire fighting methods incorporating current research into the issue. The intensity and frequency of bushfires have become more prevalent due to disturbances by man, including climate change.

An enquiry should consider the assets worth saving; not just lives, homes and property but natural assets of the World Heritage Area. Fire fighting methods should seek to protect all these values.   It seems back-burning, however well-intentioned, burnt out the Blue Gum. This is unacceptable.   What went wrong? The future survival of our forests depends on how we manage fire.”

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Official Report by the Rural Fire Service of the Grose Valley Fire(s)

On 8-Feb-2007, RFS SuperIntendent Mal Cronstedt, released his official report into the fire.  It conspicuously avoided detail and explanation of events from the first ignition on 13th November to 14th November inclusive.  Instead, his report starts on Wednesday 15th November 2006.

A copy of the report entitled Lawsons Long Alley Section 44 Report, dated 8-Feb-07 may be viewed in the Habitat Reference Library, GoTo Ref. HT010005

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Grose Valley Fire Forum

On Saturday, 17th February 2007, the Grose Valley Fire Forum was held at Mt Tomah Botanical Gardens in the Blue Mountains not far from the Grose Valley.  It was attended by bushfire industry representatives and selected others.  Again the public was not invited. On 8th March 2006, a progress report was received by the Editor from the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute (BMWHI) .  It included some 52 follow up recommended actions in relation to bushfire management in response to the Grose Fires.  The Editor at the time contributed feedback to this report to the BMWHI ahead of the report’s public release.  However, no response was ever received back from the BMWHI and none of the fedback information was included in the final report.  It was a politically convenient white wash.

A copy of the ‘Grose Valley Fire Forum Report [Final]’ dated 2-Apr-07, may be viewed in the Habitat Reference Library, GoTo Ref. HT010006.

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Contributory Input to the Progress Report of the Grose Valley Fire Forum

The following report was submitted by The Habitat Advocate to the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute co-ordinating the bushfire management review process. Progress Report extracts are shown in bold black text.

No response was ever received.

Lawson’s Long Alley Fire taken probably Tuesday 14-Nov-06 shown heading up Fairy Dell Creek toward the Darling Causeway (left of photo) east of an abandoned shack.  On ground evidence just weeks afterwards confirmed the fire was hazard reduction.

 

 

This is 2km south of the official grid reference for the ignition reported in the Section 44 Report.
Source: http://www.bluemountains.rfs.nsw.gov.au/dsp_more_info_latest.cfm?CON_ID=3578 [Accessed 17 Nov 2006]



[from Progress Report] “In November 2006, fire caused by lightning strikes burnt a significant area of the Grose Valley in the upper Blue Mountains of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (GBMWHA). Like many areas throughout the GBMWHA, the Grose Valley is an area of high natural and cultural value, including the iconic Blue Gum Forest. The two original ignitions were designated as the Burrakorain Fire and  the Lawson’s Long Alley Fire, and they came jointly under the jurisdiction of an emergency declaration under Section 44 of the Rural Fires Act.”

  • [Habitat Advocate:1] An assumed but unverified lightning strike on Monday 13th November 2006 in the vicinity of Lawson’s Long Alley and a second presumed lightning strike on the eastern end of Burra Korain Ridge that same day, sparked what has become known as the Grose Fire of 2006 (s44 Report, p1).

 

  • [Habitat Advocate:2] The following report on the RFS website 17-Nov-06 is pertinent: “Dubbed the “Lawsons Long Alley Fire”, the main fire started on Tuesday afternoon near Hartley Vale, in the Lithgow District, and quickly spread up to the Darling Causeway – blown by strong westerly winds – and has now burned out around 1,370 hectares. A second fire, known as “Burra Korain Fire” is burning to the north of Blackheath and covering an area of approximately 100 hectares.”

 

  • [Habitat Advocate:3] The Bureau of Meteorology rainfall records show that the Mt Boyce weather station (situated 4km to the south west of Lawson’s Long Alley) shows no rainfall occurring on the reported date of ignition of this fire. [Refer Appendix 2]  Dry lightning has been used as the presumed cause.  However, ground truthing conducted by the author 22-Sep-07 still provides evidence of clearly delineated prescribed burning around an abandoned shack, her the fire was purportedly really started.  The weather conditions on Saturday11th, Sunday 12th a Monday 13th November 2006 were conducive to hazard reduction burning.  The maximum temperature was a mild 16-21 degrees Celsius and winds speeds were below 40kph.  Given that Mt Boyce is situated at high altitude, the likely wind speed down near Hartley Vale would have been far less.

 

  • [Habitat Advocate:4] Two days later on 15th November a Section 44 incident declaration was made by the fire authorities. (s44 Report, p1). Two weeks later on Monday 27th November, some 14,470 hectares had been burnt, caused by both the escalated burning of the two wildfires and considerable front-burning and back-burning by the fire authorities. (s44 Report, p10).

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“Community members called on the State Government to undertake a thorough and independent review of the management of this fire, involving all stakeholders.”

  • [Habitat Advocate:5] This statement seems to be a quote sourced from a statement by local resident, Ian Brown, in a local Gazette newspaper article by journalist Shane Desiatnik of 7-Feb-07 headed ‘Pollies fan the flames’.   Brown was one of 143 residents who first called for an independent review of the bushfire.

 

 

  • [Habitat Advocate:6] Other members of the community, the author included, following the Grose Fire called on the State Government to undertake a public and independent review of the management of this fire, involving all stakeholders.  The justification for this call was on the fact the burnt Grose Valley and its rare Blue Gum Forest are natural public assets and the fire authorities responsible and accountable for quelling the fire are entirely publicly funded.  So any justification for denying public accountability has no merit.  The fire response was a public operation that went wrong and the public has a right to know why and to be reassured that systemic changes are being put in place to safeguard against a similar recurrence in the Grose or elsewhere in the Blue Mountains region.

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“Principal among the issues raised by the concerned residents were backburning, impacts of frequent fires, under-utilisation of local expertise, and economic costs. The community members also called for adequate funding for rehabilitation and environmental restoration works, to conduct more research and training in certain areas of fire management, to improve pre-fire planning and to develop management systems to better capture and utilise local knowledge.

 

Local Member for the Blue Mountains and Minister for the Environment, Hon. Bob Debus responded to these concerns by proposing that community members be given an opportunity to discuss their concerns with fire authorities and be encouraged to contribute to the development of revised fire management strategies, policies and procedures which may arise from the routine internal reviews of the 2006-07 fire season, and particularly the Grose Valley fire.”

 

  • [Habitat Advocate:7] Records show that in fact six community meetings were convened by the fire authorities in December at various locations around the mountains to discuss the fire operation [see Appendix 1].  This information has only recently become available to the author. However, the opportunity for community members to contribute to the development of revised fire management strategies, policies and procedures has still not been provided.

 

  • [Habitat Advocate:8] On 20-Dec-06 in the local Blue Mountains Gazette it was reported that: “An interagency debriefing will be conducted on December 19 to assess the response to the fire.  Commissioner Koperberg expressed hope that lessons ill emerge as part of the service’s objective of continuous improvement.”  The public were denied access to this debriefing and subsequent requests for minutes or a report of that meeting by the author to the Katoomba RFS and to RFS Headquarters at Homebush have received replies that none exist.

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“The Minister also noted the opportunity for the community to be informed of, and contribute to, the development of future research projects concerning climate change and fire regimes.”

  • [Habitat Advocate:9] Then NSW Environment Minister Bob Debus MP placed a public notice in the Gazette shortly after the fire notifying the Blue Mountains community that a follow up review process into the Grose Fire would be undertaken.

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“The Minister invited the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute (BMWHI) to organise and chair a forum of representative community members and fire authorities.”

  • [Habitat Advocate:10] The Mt Tomah forum was closed to the members of the public from attending.  Bob Debus is quoted in the BMG 20-Dec-06 in rejecting the need for an independent inquiry on the basis that “that would inescapably create the public perception of an investigation into significant operational or strategic failure on the part of fire-fighting agencies.”  Environmentally it would be fair to argue that that is exactly what happened. Debus continued with a less committed stance, stating “there is every good reason to encourage dialogue between the agencies and the community to increase understanding and further development of fire-fighting methods.”

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“The Institute is an independent non-profit organisation that supports the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage of the GBMWHA, with a key objective to “support the integration of science, management and policy within and adjoining the GBMWHA properties.” The purpose of the forum was to:

• Brief the community on the management of the Grose Valley fire and the framework and context for the management of fire generally within the World Heritage Area”;

  • [Habitat Advocate:11] How could this have been possible when members of the general public were denied access to the forum?

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• “Identify any issues that relate specifically to the management of the Grose Valley fire, and that haven’t already been captured and/or responded to within the s.44 debrief report”;

 

  • [Habitat Advocate:12] A prerequisite of the forum proceeding ought to have been the provision of the s.44 Incident Controllers Report [dated 8-Feb-07] to all forum participants.  Indeed, propriety ought to have insisted that this official summary report into a major fire affecting public land should have been made available on the RFS’ own website once endorsed by RFS Head Office. There is no detail in this report, such as issues of privacy or confidentiality that would have prevented the report’s timely release.  The benefit of releasing the report to forum participants is that in doing so it would have armed participants with knowledge about the specific events, actions and issues pertinent to the Grose Fire.

 

 

  • [Habitat Advocate:13] Many in the community, however, consider the main reason for the report not being released was politically motivated.  It is likely that its release would have caused adverse publicity to the chances of the RFS Commissioner, Phil Koperberg, (who assumed ultimate responsibility for the Grose Fire) in his nomination for the seat of Blue Mountains in NSW State Election held just weeks later on 24 March 2007.

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• “Identify longer term and landscape scale issues relating to the management of fire in the Greater Blue Mountains WHA, particularly in this time of climate change;

• Develop an action plan, which responds to any unresolved issues identified above.  In accordance with the Minister’s (Debus) brief, the following organisations were represented at the forum:

 

1 NSW Dept of Environment and Conservation;

2 NSW Rural Fire Service; Blue Mountains Conservation Society;

3 Nature Conservation Council of NSW;

4 Blue Mountains City Council;

5 NPWS Regional Advisory;

6 Committee and the GBMWHA Advisory Committee.”

  • [Habitat Advocate:14] Additional participants of the forum as listed in Table 1.1 on page 10 included Professor Ross Bradstock of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong and Carol Cooper, a local indigenous woman, her performed a welcome to country ceremony and which was listed as an observer.  Professor Bradstock is a keen supporter of the risk management policy and practices of fire management, that is ‘hazard’ reduction.  The fire authorities have relied upon Professor Bradstock’s advice over the past number of years.  It could be that some of his research funding has been provided by the RFS.  It could be fairly deduced that Professor Bradstock is a strong supporter of the RFS and the fire authorities.
  • [Habitat Advocate:15] More impartial and detached views ought to have been sought to participate in the Mt Tomah forum, for instance from independent academics with expertise on fire ecology.  Possible inclusions could have been:
    • Kevin O’Loughlin, CEO of Bushfire Group Research Centre (CRC)
    • Dr Kevin Tolhurst, Fire Ecologist at the University of Melbourne
    • Dr Kevin Hennesy, Climate Impact & Risk Group, CSIRO
    • Prof. Andy Pittman, Environmental Life Sciences, Macquarie University
    • Phil Cheney, Honorary Research Scientist and fire expert, CSIRO
    • Prof. David Lindenmayer, Centre for Research and Environmental Studies, ANU
  • Each of these people provided valuable contributions in the ABC television Four Corners documentary ‘FireStorm’ hosted by Quentin McDermott, which went to air on 5 March 2007. It would be helpful to watch this doumentatry and to make contact with these people to gain further insight into fire ecology and fire research.  In addition, local fire ecologist, Nic Gellie, who wrote a well-informed critique of the management of the Grose Fire in the local Gazette, ought to have been included in the forum.
  • [Habitat Advocate:16] It is disappointing that Carol Cooper was only invited as an observer. An invitation to participate in the forum ought to have been made to members of the local indigenous people, who have a direct cultural connection to the Blue Mountains, namely the Gundungurra, Dharug and Wiradjuri.[1]
  • [Habitat Advocate:17] Otherwise, each of the above organisations is in one way or another a member of the Inter-Agency group responsible for fighting the Grose Fire.  The GBMWHAC is a BMCC committee.  The invited participants were members of organisations pre-selected by Bob Debus. So effectively this set up the forum as a closed shop of the protagonists.  How could it then possible be expected to meet expectations of the community, with the community denied access and participation?  The forum failed on any test of independence, public access, public accountability and transparency.  No wonder “the plan of action risks not being practical or achievable.”

“A list of the participants is shown in Table 1.1. In addition to senior representatives of the agencies involved, representatives also came from the principal community-based organisations that had expressed concern and called for a review process. It should be noted that one of the main public calls for a review was made by an informal coalition of residents that was not formally represented at the forum, but a number of these residents were members of those organisations represented.”

  • [Habitat Advocate:18] The only members of that informal coalition of residents that were listed as participants of the forum were members of the Blue Mountains Conservation Society (a member organisation of the fire ‘inter-agencies’ and which is also a member organisation of the Blue Mountains Bushfire Management Committee.  Those particpants were Ian Brown, Dr Brian Marshall, Don Cameron
  • [Habitat Advocate:19] A one-day forum was never going to allow sufficient time to properly hear and debate the gamut of issues raised, nor to mould achievable actions for future improvement to local fire management. Allowing for the introductions and breaks the agenda indicated that about 5 hours was allocated to achieve all this.  How ‘enormous ground’ was gained within this forum is questionable.  Much after work appears to have been done to enable the many issues and actions to be documented in so much detail.
  • [Habitat Advocate:20] It is not surprising that the intentions “collective” given the like minded mix of participants coming rom the one side of the table.
  • [Habitat Advocate:21] Possibly one of the more intangible yet most enduring impacts of the Grose Fire that was not covered at the Mt Tomah forum has been the significant damage caused to the reputation of the RFS and the level of trust it has in the eyes of many in the community.  The negative publicity in the local Gazette newspaper by local letter writers invited very defensive public responses from RFS management and crew alike.  There was also a noticeable increase in the positive advertising and articles on the RFS in the Gazette throughout 2007. This negative publicity must have had noticeable consequences on the RFS in terms of morale, membership retention and ongoing recruitment.  This is a vitally important issue that deserves appropriate but sensitive discussion.
  • [Habitat Advocate:22] Refer to Appendix 3 below for quoted extracts of letters in the local Blue Mountains Gazette newspaper that either challenged the fire authorities in its management of the Grose Fire or else vehemently defended the RFS and its volunteer fire fighters.  The community became polarised on this subject, with few correspondents offering a middle ground perspective.  The comments provided in these letters and articles should be factored into the review into the Grose Fire.  The author has collected nearly all letters and articles published in the Gazette newspaper on the subject of fire management since 2002.

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APPENDIX 1:       Copy of a public notice issued by the RFS on its website Saturday 2 Dec-2007 calling for a series of community informational meetings into the Grose Fire.

 

[Editor’s note:   No minutes, notes or actions have been publicly released as a result of these forums.]


“Following the recent bushfire activity in the Blue Mountains and Lithgow Districts, a series of Community Meetings will be held several locations throughout the Mountains.

The purpose of these meetings is to:

Operations:

•        Provide an overview of what happened and didn’t happen

•        Detail what was done and what wasn’t done, and why.

Community Liaison and Public Information:

•        Provide information on the Community Liaison process,

•        Obtain feedback from you, our community, on how well we did it this time and how we might be able to do it better in the future,

Recovery:

•        Explain what is going to happen in the coming days and weeks,

•        Provide details of who to contact if you need assistance,

•        Provide information on what we can do, as a community, in the future

Our overall Aim is:

Better integration between emergency services and the community.

Who will be attending:

•        Your local fire brigade members, officers and Group Officers

•        Members of the Community Liaison Team

•        Members of the Incident Management Team

•        Representatives from the Rural Fire Service

•        NSW Fire Brigades

•        National Parks and Wildlife Service

•        Blue Mountains City Council.

Who should attend:

•        Community members directly or indirectly affected by the recent bushfire

activity,

•        Community members who want to know what happened and why,

•        Community members who would like to obtain information about how to

prepare for bushfires.

Remember — This is only the start of the bushfire season, not the end of it. Now is not the time to become complacent or to think that it won’t happen again this summer.

For information about preparing your home, or to make a written bushfire action plan, visit our website: www.bluemountains.rfs.nsw.gov.au or call 02 4782 2159 during business hours.

Date and Time Location
Thursday, 7 Dec @ 7:30pm Winmalee Rural Fire Station, Cnr Coramandel Ave & Hawkesbury Rd
Friday, 8 Dec @ 7:30pm Leura Golf Club, Sublime Point Rd Leura (Opp. Fairmont Resort)
Saturday, 9 Dec @ 10:30am Mt Tomah Rural Fire Station, Charleys Rd, Mt Tomah
Saturday, 9 Dec @ 3:00pm Clarence Rural Fire Station, Chifley Rd
Saturday, 9 Dec @ 7:30pm Blackheath Golf Club, Brightlands Ave
Sunday, 10 Dec @ 10:00am Faulconbridge Rural Fire Station, Railway Pde

These meetings are being facilitated by the Community Safety Group of the Blue Mountains Bush Fire Management Committee. For further enquiries, please call 02 4782 2159 during business hours, Mon-Fri.”

Inspector Eric J Berry JP, Community Safety Officer

Blue Mountains District, NSW Rural Fire Service

Emergency Services Centre

Cnr Bathurst Rd & Valley Rd

KATOOMBA NSW 2780

Ph: 02 4782 2159 (Office)

E-Mail: eric.berry@rfs.nsw.gov.au

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APPENDIX 2:   Local Weather at Time of Start of Grose Fire

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Mount Boyce, New South Wales

November 2006 Daily Weather Observations

Date Day Temps Rain Evap Sun Max wind gust 9 am 3 pm
Min Max Dir Spd Time Temp RH Cld Dir Spd MSLP Temp RH Cld Dir Spd MSLP
°C °C mm mm hours km/h local °C % 8th km/h hPa °C % 8th km/h hPa
1 We 10.8 24.7 0 WSW 50 12:07 16.1 26 W 13 22.3 18 WSW 20
2 Th 11.5 25.1 0 WNW 57 14:18 18.3 49 WNW 15 21.1 29 WNW 11
3 Fr 12.3 19.4 8.8 NW 39 05:23 13.3 93 W 11 17.8 68 SE 11
4 Sa 9.8 11.5 2.4 SSE 26 21:48 10.2 98 SE 9 11.2 97 SE 7
5 Su 8.3 12.9 4.8 SW 46 16:16 8.6 98 SSW 15 11.5 86 SW 20
6 Mo 8.6 16.2 9.6 SE 31 09:48 11.5 98 SSE 13 14.9 79 E 11
7 Tu 7.5 17.6 2.2 ENE 31 18:51 11.0 81 NNE 9 16.2 71 ENE 11
8 We 6.0 15.6 2.6 N 33 20:10 8.9 89 E 9 14.3 74 E 11
9 Th 5.1 13.9 1.6 SE 30 23:29 6.6 96 E 9 12.9 62 ENE 9
10 Fr 4.9 20.7 0.2 WSW 61 18:22 11.5 65 W 6 17.4 40 WSW 26
11 Sa 10.5 26.1 1.0 WNW 54 13:43 16.4 63 W 20 25.2 19 W 19
12 Su 14.3 27.0 0 WNW 80 19:58 21.0 38 WNW 13 25.1 25 W 28
13 Mo 17.7 20.1 0 W 89 15:37 18.8 52 W 19 16.8 57 W 39
14 Tu 3.4 20.3 1.4 W 63 22:53 9.3 57 W 11 19.7 16 WNW 28
15 We 9.3 12.5 0 WNW 81 10:14 10.3 48 W 35 8.0 56 W 35
16 Th 0.2 12.4 0 SSW 50 06:20 4.3 59 SW 20 12.2 30 SW 20
17 Fr 2.5 17.7 0 ENE 28 17:23 7.5 56 SSW 11 17.1 30 ENE 11
18 Sa 5.8 25.2 0 W 31 13:28 12.5 51 W 13 23.5 18 SW 13
19 Su 12.5 26.4 0 W 39 12:29 20.1 18 WNW 6 24.4 27 E 11
20 Mo 16.7 29.2 0 WNW 39 10:04 22.1 20 W 13 27.6 14 W 19
21 Tu 18.3 29.9 0 WSW 59 11:00 21.9 26 W 24 27.8 16 W 24
22 We 21.2 29.8 0 W 72 12:13 22.5 28 WNW 26 28.8 16 NW 37
23 Th 13.1 29.9 0 WSW 44 15:56 17.7 41 WSW 17 27.7 13 WSW 24
24 Fr 12.3 23.0 0 E 28 16:10 13.6 91 ENE 9 22.2 50 E 11
25 Sa 12.9 31.3 0 WSW 39 11:52 20.2 56 W 6 29.3 20 WNW 15
26 Su 13.4 23.7 0 NE 30 16:37 14.5 95 ENE 9 22.3 57 E 13
27 Mo 8.9 22.7 0 E 30 13:35 13.8 82 NE 11 22.1 57 ENE 15
28 Tu 13.8 28.9 0 WNW 63 13:48 21.8 46 W 13 24.7 35 W 35
29 We 18.5 30.1 0 SW 63 09:05 23.0 38 W 30 21.6 50 ENE 22
30 Th 6.4 23.7 0.2 W 26 22:17 11.4 61 NE 11 23.5 32 E 9
Statistics for November 2006
Mean 10.6 22.2 14.6 60 14 20.3 42 18
Lowest 0.2 11.5 0 4.3 18 # 6 8.0 13 SE 7
Highest 21.2 31.3 9.6 W 89 23.0 98 W 35 29.3 97 W 39
Total 34.8

IDCJDW2087.200611   Prepared at 13:06 GMT on Monday 10 September 2007

Source of data

Observations were drawn from Mount Boyce AWS {station 063292}.

The closest station with cloud observations is at Katoomba, about 11 km to the south.

Source: Australian Bureau of Meteorology, http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/dwo/200611/html/IDCJDW2087.200611.shtml [Accessed: Sep-07]

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APPENDIX 3:   Selected quoted accounts of letters in the Blue Mountain Gazette newspaper [BMG]

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Noticeably, the contributors were either decidedly critical of the handling of the Grose Fire, or otherwise vehemently defensive of the RFS organisation and its volunteers.


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‘The burning alternative’

[BMG 13-Dec-06]

(Extracts only below due to the article being nearly 1000 words)

“…Tragically, the lack of resourcing of the initial attack with helicopters and remote area crews in the first two days of the fire contributed to the expansion of the fire area.  A well directed initial attack may well have avoided the huge cost of later suppression – and the damage to heritage values that we must now count.

Hopefully a truly independent inquiry will soon enough tell us what really happened in the Blue Mountains…”

“…During dry thunderstorms on the afternoon of the 13th November, lightning started a fire near Burrakorain head in the Grose Valley.  Helicopters and remote area crews were deployed to contain the fire.  A day later*, a separate fire, cause unknown, spread up to the Darling Causeway and spotted  across the road into the Grose Valley and the national park, about 2 kilometres east of its source.

Because of the failure to suppress the spot-overs on the Darling Causeway and the remote lightning strike, it was decided to burn out the Upper Grose valley and enlarge the fire area.”

“…Management of a World Heritage area or national park must be based on a sound set of fire risk principles that protect the natural and cultural assets of the park system, as well as adjoining human assets.  Whether it is Kosciusko, the Wollemi of the Blue Mountains, our parks are suffering.  And potentially fire fighters, people and property are being put at greater risk as a result of a ‘back-burning’ dominated strategy at times when the weather is urging caution.”

“Frustratingly there is an alternative – …During periods of dry thunderstorms and forecast extreme fire weather, we went on high alert and put out lightning started fires immediatey with direct attack using remote area crews and helicopters.

To succeed, you need a knowledge support system based on a detailed understanding of the park’s landscapes, biota, fire spread, and historical and current fire weather.  With this, you can develop fire strategies that minimise risk to both nature’s and people’s assets.

“…To implement this new approach, we need teams of people, including volunteers, trained to manage our fire-prone landscapes more effectively.  These people should come from a range of scientific and cultural backgrounds, with close knowledge of biodiversity, heritage and community values.”

Nicholas Gellie is a fire ecologist an former fire manager with 30 years experience with various agencies, including the NSW NPWS.  He is currently completing a MSc thesis at the ANU on the topic of ‘Exposure of the ACT region to severe drought, fire weather and lightning ignition’.

*[This account differs from the Secton 44 Report that states the Lawson Long Alley fire started on the same day.]


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Job well done

[BMG 13-Dec-06]

Now that things have calmed down on the local fire front, I would like to convey my thanks to the local community and its fire-fighters for a job well done.

Volunteer firefighters of the RFS, together with colleagues from the New South Wales Fire Brigades and the National Parks and Wildlife Service have spent countless hours over the last weeks protecting our communities.

Their efforts have meant that there has been no private property lost, no people hurt and the fire’s size has been much less than similar events in past years.  Well done everyone.”

SuperIntendent Mal Cronstedt

Blue Mountains RFS.


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‘Questions on Fire’

[BMG 13-Dec-06]

“Firstly I would like to say how much I admire and appreciate the dedication

of the men and women  who work and volunteer in fire-fighting and emergency crews.  They spend their precious time and risk their life and limb to keep people and property safe, and they are having a very hard time of it in the Mountains at the moment.  They all deserve to be paid a proper wage for their work, and they do not deserve to be put in unnecessary danger.

Secondly I have some questions for those higher up in the chain of command.  Why was the fire in the Grose Valley allowed to burn for a week while the weather was cooler and the fire was moving slowly in the undergrowth rather than leaping through the treetops?

Why weren’t enough resources thrown at the problem before the expected weather change?

It seems as if there is a policy of allowing our national parks to burn, in fact the situation seems to have been used as an excuse for the backburning which increased the fire front which now threatens people and homes.

Our national park is also our property and is a home for many species, it is also an important tourist attraction in the Blue Mountains.  It is not good fire or resource management to let our Blue Mountains National Park burn.”

Susan Ambler, Katoomba


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Under fire – Koperberg defends fire effort

(front Page headline – BMG 13-Dec-06 – article by Damian Madigan)

“The Rural Fire Service commissioner Phil Koperberg has stood firm against calls for an independent review of last month’s Grose Valley bushfire, rejecting claims backburning intensified the fire threat.

His defence of the fire fighting effort has been strongly backed by the State Government with Blue Mountains MP Bob Debus criticising local rumours that backburning got “out of control”.

Political heat over the bushfires started last week when more than 140 Blue Mountains residents took out a full page advertisement in the Blue Mountains Gazette calling for an independent review of the fire.  Their concerns were given weight this week when fire ecologist Nic Gellie criticised the fire fighting effort, and Colong Foundation for Wilderness director Keith Muir called for an independent inquiry…

…The latest criticisms centre on supposedly “out of control” backburning and subsequent damage to the Blue Gum Forest.  But Mr Koperberg angrily rejected the claims when he spoke to the Gazette last week.  He said the situation would have been much worse if the backburning operations weren’t carried out.

“The reality is this is the first time in half a century that a fire at the head of the Grose did not consume all of the Grose Valley which it would have done if we had not intervened with backburning”, he said.  What I would like to know is this – does anyone believe the fire would have gone out if we had not intervened?  Well, it wouldn’t have.  It would have just went on its merry way and we would have been fighting it in every town and village in the Blue Mountains, and the Grose would have burnt from end to end…”

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Questioning the questioners

Monday, 18 December 2006 BMG

I was interested in the letters in last week’s Gazette questioning the RFS’s approach to the recent Grose fire. In particular I was wondering if Dr. Jackie Janosi and Susan Ambler had, before writing to the Gazette, considered the following questions:

  • Has the Blue Gum forest burnt before ?
  • If so how many times in recorded history and how many times prior to white man’s arrival in this country and what was the frequency of fire before and after our arrival?
  • During previous occasions how intense was the fire ?
  • If intensities varied from this time why ?
  • Were the fires prior to the exclusion of cattle from the forest more or less intense ?
  • Was the lack of hazard reduction in and around the forest a contributing factor to the intensity of the fire ?
  • Could the forest, and indeed the whole of the Grose Valley, be better managed or is it inevitable that fires will occur in the Grose Valley every 10 – 13 years because fuel levels generally build to a point that will sustain fires that are difficult to control within that time frame ?
  • If fire is inevitable what should fire authorities set as their prime focus – firefighter safety, protection of people and their assets or protection of the natural assets ?

I put these questions to provide some balance to earlier comments in relation to a complex subject.

Donald Luscombe, Winmalee (RFS)

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‘Blue Gum Lessons’

[BMG 20-Dec-06]

“One of our most precious natural heritage assets, the Blue Gum Forest, has been allowed to be scorched by bushfire. This demands an independent enquiry into current fire fighting practices to ensure such a tragedy is not repeated.

Not a witch hunt, but what is needed is a constructive revision into improving bushfire fighting methods incorporating current research into the issue. The intensity and frequency of bushfires have become more prevalent due to disturbances by man, including climate change.

An enquiry should consider the assets worth saving; not just lives, homes and property but natural assets of the World Heritage Area. Fire fighting methods should seek to protect all these values.   It seems back-burning, however well-intentioned, burnt out the Blue Gum. This is unacceptable.   What went wrong? The future survival of our forests depends on how we manage fire.”

The Habitat Advocate


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Try blowing it out

[BMG 20-Dec-06]

“The next time there is a large blaze in the Blue Mountains, perhaps we should get fire-fighters to make a big circle around it and blow it out like a big birthday cake?

That won’t require precious water, expensive air support or back burning.  I’m not sure if it would help put the fire out though.

Let’s just allow the real experts to do their jobs, ask the pretend ones to keep their mouths shut and be thankful that this time, we al still have homes to live in.”

Brian Fischer-Giffin, Hazelbrook

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‘Residents repeat call for fire review’

[BMG 14-Feb-07]

The group of residents who supported the “Fire in the Grose Valley’ statement published in the Blue Mountains Gazette last year [6-12-06] have repeated their call for an independent scientific review.

“We fully support the Rural Fire Service, National Parks and volunteers.  We want them backed up with more fire research, funding, planning and training.  This is all about a better fire management system for the future,” they said in (their) statement to the Gazette.

“We think independent scientific analysis is critical to achieve this.  We feel even more strongly about this now than two months ago.  There are many in the community who would like more information and answers to their questions.

“Could the fires have been better contained earlier and kept to a smaller area?  Were there enough remote area fire-fighters?  Could some of the impacts on the World Heritage Grose Valley have been avoided with better resourcing?  Some people think that any fire is ok and it can’t hurt the bush.  It’s not true”, said the statement.  Frequent fire is listed as an ecologically threat under NSW legislation.  And excluding fire is damaging too.  The Blue Mountains bush is complex, and each community is adapted to a particular pattern of fire.  Surviving animals need time to mature and breed.  If the bush burns too often then some plants and animals – perhaps unique to the Blue Mountains – will be eliminated.

“The most constructive approach is to work on flaws in the system that get in the way of best results.  We have written to the government outlining the sort of review we would like – a thorough and objective technical review, with community input and feedback – the same as what the Blue Mountains City Council voted to support.

“It has to be constructive and blameless and it should happen routinely after every big fire.”

(Article – probably drafted by Ian Brown, co-ordinator of the informal coalition of residents).

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‘Not buckling’

[BMG 14-Feb-07]

“In reply to Helen Buckle (BMG 7.2.07): the call for an independent review of the 2006 Grose Valley fire being used as a political football lies with responses such as your letter which implies that the purpose of the review is nothing more than an attack on a particular candidate.  This narrow approach irresponsibly discourages an ongoing comprehensive evaluation of our responses to major and possible devastating fire events.

The position of councillors who supported the recent motion calling for an independent and public review reflected the opinion of a large number of Blue Mountains residents, including the 143 citizens who called on the State Government to conduct a review by way of a full page statement in this paper on December 6.

To trivialise this issue and groundswell of public opinion as being merely my “own select community of Blue Mountains residents’ is nothing more than a denial of views existing in the community which do not happen to coincide with one’s own.

This is a serious matter which should not be allowed to be sidelined or marginalised because of the particular make-up of the candidacy for the seat of Blue Mountains in the imminent State election.  Cheap political shots do nothing for the measured level of consideration which this issue requires.

An independent and publicly accessible review of the fire and our responses, called for at this point in time, can only be held after the election and presumably, to be effective, before the next fire season, i.e., during the winter months.  Hopefully, by then, shallow and reactive responses will be exhausted, and a rational and constructive evaluation will allow us to continue to develop effective and efficient strategies for the Mountains, its communities and fire-fighters, in the face of the certainty of large and intense fires in the future.

Clr Pippa McInnes, Faulconbridge

[Editor:  This independent review seems to have been forgotten].

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‘What Really Happened’

[Published BMG 10-Oct-07 under a different heading:  [‘RFS resources limited’]

The official RFS Section 44 Report into last year’s Grose Fire found that “there (were) not sufficient RAFT crews” despite multiple spot fires in difficult terrain and “the likelihood of fire escape during severe fire weather (being) certain.”

“Suspected” dry lightning sparked two ignitions last November on Monday 13, one oddly mapped to a grass paddock within easy fire truck access off Walton’s Road, Hartley Vale.  But these fires were “not detected until the following day.”  On Tuesday 14, with a gusting westerly and a fire index of 25, numerous spot fires had progressed into steep bushland inaccessible to fire truck crews.  Despite it becoming apparent to fire authorities that these fires “would present problems beyond the resources available locally”, the decision to declare a Section 44 escalated response wasn’t taken until Wednesday 15.

Multiple broad-acre backburning became the “fall-back strategies” despite “spot-over” fires occurring “some 12 kilometres distant from the main fire” north of Linden, showing up backburning as ineffectual.  A new burn was lit along Hungerford Track inside the Grose and “aerial incendiary” was dropped “north of Blackheath on Sunday 19.  An RFS burn south of Bells Line of Road became “a concern” on Wednesday 22 (“blow-up day”) before it coalesced with the wildfires into “a major run” through the Grose Valley.  A massive 6km pyro-cumulous cloud developed “visible from much of the Sydney basin”.  Some 14,470 hectares of bush habitat had been burnt.

The report documents insufficient aerial support, “deployment was less than satisfactory”, “radio communications (were) poor”, bulldozer contractors were unsupervised and RFS RAFT crew standards “were questioned”.

Lack of early detection resources, of rapid initial suppression and ineffective resource management were inferred as key operational concerns behind the Grose Fire.  Surely, fire fighters protecting both community and public assets deserve first class management, resources and funding.”

The Habitat Advocate


=== End of Report ===


References:

[1] Smith (Jim), ‘Wywandy and Therabulat – The Aborigines of the upper Cox River and their association with Hartley and Lithgow’, paper No. 49 originally presented on 22-Oct-1990, ISBN 0 85866 0997.

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One Response to “2006 Grose Valley Fire – a cover up?”

  1. Re bushfire administrative madness

    See document ” Bushfire Bombers RFS style ” or ”
    Fire Bombing RFS Style – 1.PDF ”

    Start at page 24, and see why fires are allowed to get out of hand, much to the consternation of many RFS volunteers, then read document in full

    Bushfires are allowed to get to section 44 ( sect 44 of Bush fire Act of NSW )stage, as this means the costs are tranferred to Federal Gov’t and feeds this company started by the fire commissioners

    Fires should be extinguished while small before they get larger, if possible, and proper back burning in sections in winter can help stop these summer infernos

    There is a way to fix this

    Anyway, enough from me. Refer to the documents above

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