Three commissioners appointed to lead royal commission on Australia’s bushfires

The findings will be due by the end of August, 2020

satellite photo smoke from bush fires New South Wales
The Suomi Joint Polar Satellite System captured this photo of smoke from bush fires in New South Wales, Australia, November 8, 2019. The red areas represent heat.

The Governor-General of Australia has appointed three commissioners to lead a royal commission to look into the bushfires that so far during the 2019-2020 fire season have devastated to an unprecedented extent large areas of Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria.

From ABC Australia:

Two more commissioners, former Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett and leading environmental lawyer Andrew Macintosh, will join former Australian Defence Force (ADF) chief Mark Binskin.

The trio are due to deliver their findings to the Federal Government by the end of August.

More than 30 people died across the country during the disaster, and thousands of homes were destroyed.

The ABC revealed earlier this month that hazard reduction would form a key part of the inquiry, after Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an investigation into whether controlled burns and land clearing operations had been hampered across the country.

Climate change, and specifically its effect of creating longer, hotter and drier fire seasons, will also be considered by the royal commission.

In January when a royal commission was being proposed, the United Firefighters Union of Australia said there had already been numerous bushfire-related inquiries over the past two decades. One more commission would likely come up with the same issues, they said.

The union believed there should be instead, an audit all of the existing recommendations that haven’t been implemented. They said Royal Commissions are expensive, can take hundreds of days, force witnesses to relive the trauma, and the commission has no binding power to implement recommendations.

A royal commission evaluated the Australian bushfires that occurred in February, 2009. Public hearings began on April 20, 2009, with the Commission hearing from 434 witnesses over 155 hearing days before concluding on May 27, 2010.

Witnesses included two expert panels and 100 “lay” witnesses drawn from bushfire-affected communities. Almost 1,700 written submissions were considered by the Commission, close to 1,000 exhibits tendered and 20,500 pages of written transcripts produced.

Meanwhile, New South Wales is conducting an “independent expert inquiry” into the 2019-2020 bushfire season. Dave Owens APM, former Deputy Commissioner of NSW Police, and Professor Mary O’Kane AC, Independent Planning Commission Chair and former NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, are leading the six-month inquiry, which is reviewing the causes of, preparation for, and response to the 2019-20 bushfires.

The Inquiry welcomes submissions from bushfire-affected residents, emergency and support personnel, organizations and the general public.

Huge sign in Times Square thanks firefighters

Times Square billboard thanks firefighters

A large electronic billboard in New York’s Times Square featured a video message this week thanking the firefighters from the United States and Australia that worked on the bushfires in Australia.

Some firefighters return from Australia while others are deploying

Angeles National Forest crew returns after 30 days

Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australi
Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australia. Photo posted February 11, 2020 by Emergency Management Victoria.

Three more Incident Management Teams from the United States and Canada have deployed to Victoria, Australia. These teams will continue to support local crews in East Gippsland, positioned in the regional Incident Control Centres and out on the fire ground.

Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australi
Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australia. Photo posted February 11, 2020 by Emergency Management Victoria.

The 20-person hand crew that left January 7 from the Angeles National Forest (ANF) in Southern California to assist with the bushfires in Australia returned 30 days later on February 5.

20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia
The 20-person hand crew from the Angeles National Forest returned from Australia February 5. USFS photo.

I admit, I am old-school about some issues related to firefighting. I could not help but notice a striking difference between the first photos of U.S. personnel en route down under, compared to the more recent groups. The early photos from December of the personnel from scattered locations around the Western U.S. looked like they could have been on their day off on the way to McDonalds. But beginning in January the photos began to show what was obviously professionals on the way to an important assignment. As they walked, wearing their uniforms, through the airport in Australia other travelers in the airport spontaneously applauded. Very different from the early groups wearing sneakers, jeans, and a wide variety of t-shirts in assorted colors.

I mentioned to Robert Garcia, the Fire Chief for the ANF, the difference in the appearance of the various groups of firefighters when they were traveling. He said:

We honestly believe that how we show up is a key part of professionalism and as such, their duty. Despite many changes, we are trying our best to hold to the professional core values of duty, respect, and integrity.

We insisted that they all depart and arrive in the FS uniform and although they are represented by all 5 ANF IHC crews, ANF Engine crews, prevention, and aviation, they all wore the USFS, Angeles NF Nomex and T-shirt.

Here is a link to more information about the crews from the U.S. working in Australia. The article includes a couple of videos.

Below are photos of the ANF firefighters in more casual attire as they were working in Victoria, but still wearing the ANF t-shirts.

20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia
USFS firefighters from the Angeles NF pose with firefighters from Victoria, Australia. USFS photo.
20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia
USFS firefighters from the Angeles NF in Victoria, Australia. USFS photo. USFS photo.

20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia

20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia
USFS firefighters from the Angeles NF pose with firefighters from Victoria, Australia. USFS photo.

Saving a Very Large tree

Huge tree in the Eucalyptus genus

firefighters save Messmate tree Victoria Australia
Firefighters work to save a Messmate in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Forest Fire Management Victoria.

Chris Hardman, Chief Fire Officer for Forest Fire Management Victoria, distributed these photos of firefighters working to save a very large tree in Australia. Here is what he wrote:

FFMVic Firefighters Henry Lohr and his team mates protected this really important community asset, an ancient Messmate near Bendoc. I hope the work they have done clearing around the base and pumping 600ltrs of foam into the root area saves this tree.

Messmate is a common name for a group of species of tree in the plant genus Eucalyptus.

firefighters save Messmate tree Victoria Australia
Firefighters work to save a Messmate in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Forest Fire Management Victoria.

Rain stops some of the bushfires in Australia

A number of locations have received 100 mm (almost four inches) of precipitation

Precip Observed
Observed precipitation observed during the seven-day period ending February 7. The darkest green color indicates 100 mm (almost 4 inches) of precipitation.

Many areas in New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland have received multiple inches of rain over the last seven days with a number of locations recording about 100 mm (almost four inches).

A heavy rain could come close to putting out some fires but a light rain, depending on the fuel (vegetation), might just pause the spread for a while. And some regions have received little or no rain.

NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says the rain is “breaking the back” of the bushfire season. “The rain is good for business and farms as well as being really good for quenching some of these fires we’ve been dealing with for many, many months,” the commissioner told ABC TV on Friday.

The forecast for Sydney, on the NSW coast, calls for nearly 100 percent chance of precipitation every day over the next eight days.

Precipitation forecast for Sydney, Australia
Precipitation forecast for Sydney, Australia. Generated Saturday February 8 local time.

Australian military establishes kitchen unit at bushfire

They are also using heavy equipment to help contain bushfires

ADF mobile kitchen feeds firefighters
Screenshot from the ADF video below

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has established at least one mobile kitchen to feed personnel involved in providing assistance at bushfires.

Here is the official description of the video, which is below:

“The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is continuing support to State and Territory agencies and local communities under Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20. Three Joint Task Forces have been established to facilitate ADF support to emergency services in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. The ADF is working alongside government and civilian agencies at all levels in support of the firefighting, relief and recovery effort by providing humanitarian, transport and other assistance such as aviation, route clearance, logistics, veterinary assistance, health services, engineering support, and accommodation.”

They are also using heavy equipment to help contain bushfires.