Victorian Supreme Court approves $494 million settlement for Black Saturday bushfires

The Supreme Court in Victoria, Australia has approved a payout of A$494 million ($406 million) to survivors and families after 119 people were killed, more than 1,000 injured, 125,000 hectares (309,000 acres) burned, and 1,172 homes and properties were destroyed in a bushfire in Victoria on February 7, 2009.

Below are excerpts from an article at ABC.net.au:

The action, which involved about 5,000 people, was taken against power distributor SP AusNet and asset manager Utility Services Group. The defendants have denied liability.

The case came about after the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission found the Kilmore East-Kinglake bushfire was caused by an ageing SP AusNet power line.

Parties including SP AusNet and the Victorian Government had agreed to the $500 million settlement but it required the court’s approval.

SP AusNet has agreed to pay $378.6 million, while Utility Services Corporation Ltd will pay $12.5 million.

The Victorian Government, which includes Victoria Police and the Country Fire Authority, have agreed to pay $103.6 million.

At least one of the fires exhibited very extreme fire behavior, as we reported on May 21, 2009. Fire behavior expert Dr. Kevin Tolhurst determined that spot fires occurred a record 35 kilometers (21 miles) ahead of the main fire.

“Fatal flaws” in Aussie Stay-or-Go bushfire strategy

Some of the 172 people that died in the Black Saturday bushfires in the Australian state of Victoria in 2009 made a conscious decision to stay at home, rather than evacuate. The Stay-or-Go option that has been used in Victoria for years did not turn out well during the extreme fire behavior on Black Saturday.

Here is an excerpt from an article in The Australian:

…According to geographers Saffron O’Neill of Melbourne University and John Handmer with RMIT University, the state’s fire preparedness strategies must be “transformed” or the next “complex” bushfire will cost far more than Black Saturday’s 172 lives and $3.5 billion in damage.

According to Professor Handmer and Dr O’Neill, most people who died in the fires left the decision to leave their homes too late or had fire plans containing “fatal flaws” — such as sheltering in a bathroom or other small room — where they were unaware of what was happening to the rest of the house and had no way to escape when the house caught fire.

“This is not a small step or a small change,” said Professor Handmer of the vulnerabilities he and Dr O’Neill detail today in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

“We are the victims of our own success,” said Dr Handmer, noting that strategies for preparing for and coping with ordinary bushfires were totally inadequate in the face of hot, fast-moving wildfires.

The researchers recommend policymakers focus on four areas: diminishing the hazard — for instance, by altering electrical power distribution systems; reducing the exposure of infrastructure and buildings by prohibiting housing in high-hazard areas; reducing the vulnerability of people — by, for example, identifying disabled people; and boosting the adaptive capacity of institutions such as insurers and firefighters.

Thanks go out to Dick

Australia’s Black Saturday fires: before and after photos

Black Saturday bushfires photosI like to look at before and after pictures. One of the best examples is the book of photographs that compare the photos taken on General George Custer’s 1874 expedition through the Black Hills of South Dakota, with photos taken by Ernest Grafe and Paul Horsted and published in the book Exploring With Custer: The 1874 Black Hills Expedition in 2003. The differences in vegetation help to explain why we now have larger fires that are more difficult to control.

Andrew Quilty, a photographer on the other side of the world, has done something similar, but instead of waiting 129 years for the after pictures, he took photos immediately after the February, 2009 Black Saturday fires in Australia, and then again two years later. One is on the left, and others are HERE.

Thanks Dick

Australia’s Royal Commission releases final report on 2009 bushfires disaster

Royal Commission Final Report
Click to see a larger version

The Royal Commission has released their final report on the bush fires of February, 2009 that left 173 dead in Australia. Interestingly, the Commission recommends keeping the “stay and defend or leave early” policy after augmenting and improving it in a number of areas.  The report consists of five volumes and thousands of pages. HERE is a link to the report, and below is an excerpt about it from the Telegraph:

The report into the worst bush fire in Australian history, which killed 173 people, described the authorites’ response as “inadequate”.

The detailed document recommended building bush fire refuges and shelters in vulnerable areas, buying land back from home owners who are living in the most at risk parts of the countryside, and implementing a new emergency evacuation strategy.

It also recommended appointing a new independent fire commissioner to oversee the state’s firefighting operations after leadership during the deadly blazes was found to be lacking.
However, the commission, which was set up by the federal Australian government to investigate the causes and responses to the bush fires, recommended that the controversial “stay and defend or leave early policy” – which has been blamed for putting scores of people in the path of the catastrophic blazes – be thoroughly overhauled but not abandoned.

A total of 173 people died when the worst bush fires in Australian history engulfed rural towns and communities in the southern state of Victoria on Feb 7 2009. Temperatures soared to 118F and strong winds fanned the flames.

Of those who died on Black Saturday, 113 were found in or near houses that were burned to the ground by towering flames that outran fire engines and swept across 1.1 million acres of countryside in a matter of hours.

The commission, which has spent 17 months hearing evidence from more than 400 witnesses, found that the policy, which encourages home owners to decide when and if to leave their properties, was “sound” but needed to be revised.

“Leaving early is still the safest option. Staying to defend a well-prepared defendable home is also a sound choice in less severe fires but there needs to be greater emphasis on important qualifications,” the report said.

The report stated that the power of the infernos generated on Black Saturday exposed weaknesses in the “stay or go” policy.

The policy was too “simplistic” and “realistic advice is unavoidably more complex”, it said.

“As a consequence, although the Commission suggests retaining the effective elements of the existing policy it also recommends augmenting and improving the policy in a number of areas.”

Thanks Chuck

Australian Royal Commission told to abandon “stay or go”

Here is an excerpt from the AAP:

The policy that people in well-prepared homes can save their property and their lives in the face of a raging bushfire is a myth and should be abandoned, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has heard.

The stay or go policy failed the community on Black Saturday because many people who prepared to stay and defend their homes were killed, lawyers assisting the commission said.

But the state government’s solicitor argued it was still safer for people to shelter in houses during a bushfire than be caught in the open when trying to flee at the last minute.

The commission has been told that 113 of 173 people killed in the February 7, 2009 bushfires died sheltering in homes.

Senior Counsel assisting the commission, Jack Rush, QC, said the government’s policy didn’t work because many people don’t make preparations to stay and defend, and fewer left early.

He said the assertion in the stay or go policy that “people protect houses, houses protect people” was a myth and the policy should be abandoned.

“We call for a replacement of the policy with a new policy based around evacuation as the primary protective action for a community that is threatened by fire.

“If evacuation is not possible, shelter options should be available to all communities that are threatened by fire.”

Thanks Dick

Australia: chief fire officer of Country Fire Authority resigns

From the HeraldSun

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UPDATE 4.35pm: A COLLEAGUE of Russell Rees says he fears the CFA [Country Fire Authority] chief was pushed from office and that he had been happy to stay on in the role.

Mr Rees will leave his position a month before the final report of the bushfires Royal Commission is handed down, after he was heavily criticised in the interim report.

He said today the decision was one he made entirely on his own. He had 18 months left to run on his contract.

Russell Rees
Russell Rees, CFA photo

But Paul Hendrie, who was captain of Kinglake brigade on Black Saturday, suspects Mr Rees was pushed.

He said Mr Rees was positive about the job when he spoke to him three days before the February 7 first anniversary of the fires.

“I was actually talking to Russell out there and he said he was happy in the job and he was staying and all that sort of stuff,” Mr Hendrie said.

“It just surprises me today to hear that he’s resigned.

“He might have said ‘well the pressure is too much’ and he might have moved on but in the back of your mind you think that maybe someone, somehow, somewhere along the line, someone has pushed him.”

Premier John Brumby today said Mr Rees made the right decision to quit his post because new blood was needed in the CFA.

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