'Incompetence' left Canberra to burn
The Australian  20dec06
EVEN as spot fires were breaking out in Canberra's outer suburbs and the historic Mount Stromlo Observatory was burning to the ground, ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope was on the airwaves, reassuring the city's residents not to be alarmed.
In fact, the ACT Coroner found, Mr Stanhope's cabinet knew two days before bushfires ripped through Canberra's western fringe on January 18, 2003 - incinerating 500 homes and killing four people - that a "potential disaster" was imminent.
Yet an environment of chaos and incompetence in the top levels of his Government and the territory's firefighting ranks meant too few residents were warned of the approaching firestorm and too few homes saved when it struck.
In a scathing report into the fires handed down yesterday, ACT Coroner Maria Doogan accused Mr Stanhope and the Emergency Services Bureau of incompetence. "My overall impression is that senior personnel at the Emergency Services Bureau lacked competence and professionalism and that the bureau was disorganised and was functioning in a chaotic, unco-ordinated fashion, particularly during the most critical period of the fires," she said...
Ms Doogan reserved some of her harshest criticism for Mr Stanhope, saying he misled residents by telling a radio interviewer on the day of the fires they should not be alarmed or anxious, saying a state of emergency was "essentially an administrative measure". "Minutes later, houses began to be destroyed," Ms Doogan said. "Mr Stanhope either misunderstood or deliberately downplayed the seriousness of the situation (and he) was the relevant minister at the most critical time of the firestorm."
But Mr Stanhope shrugged off the verdict yesterday, accusing Ms Doogan of quoting his radio comments selectively and rejecting her finding that officials warned his cabinet of potential risks posed by the looming fires on January 16...
Ms Doogan's two-year inquest concluded that the damage caused by four fires which linked to form a firestorm was more extensive than it should have been because of the ACT Government's failures in preparation, firefighting strategy and public warnings.
But last night, as the ACT Liberal Opposition demanded he resign, Mr Stanhope accused the Coroner of making mistakes -- including finding that he was the minister responsible for emergency services at the time of the fires, when he had held that responsibility only on the day the fire reached the urban fringe.
Mr Stanhope said Ms Doogan was wrong to say his cabinet had been warned of the peril. "We were not given a briefing that alarmed us in any way or which was consistent with the Coroner's findings," said Mr Stanhope, whose Government failed in a legal bid to curtail the Coroner's inquiry on the basis that Ms Doogan was biased.
Ms Doogan found that poor planning by senior ACT fire chiefs and their unwillingness to aggressively fight small bushfires contributed to the catastrophic fire. "By the early morning of Saturday ... senior personnel of the Emergency Services Bureau ... all recognised the potential for fires to impinge on the urban edge at some time. They failed to take action within their respective areas of responsibility."
Chief among those bureaucrats blamed were bureau officials Mike Castle, Peter Lucas-Smith, Tony Graham and Rick McRae. "It is easy to be blinded by the wisdom of hindsight," Mr Castle said yesterday in his defence. "Decisions ... were made in good faith by many very experienced personnel based on their professional assessment of what was known at the time, not on what ultimately occurred."