Australia’s Prime Minister wants to establish bushfire Royal Commission

Some Australian firefighters are urging the PM not to call for a Royal Commission

smoke pyrocumulus bushfires Australia
Photo of smoke from bushfires, by Merrin Macleod on a flight from Canberra to Melbourne, posted January 4, 2020.

Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister of Australia, wants to establish a Royal Commission to evaluate the country’s response to the unprecedented number of bushfires that have plagued the eastern part of the continent since September.

In a statement issued in mid-January the United Firefighters Union of Australia said there have 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 believes 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.

Below is an excerpt from The Australian published January 28, 2020:

In a speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday that would otherwise have been ­expected to outline the government’s agenda for the year, Mr Morrison will focus on the government’s longer-term response to the devastating bushfire season and the future national emergency response plan.

The speech will not include new announcements on climate change policy but will pitch his message to middle Australia by ­focusing on practical measures.

It will recognize climate change and broader environmental issues as threats to people’s livelihoods.

Natural disaster response and climate resilience will now feature as key planks of the Coalition’s broader approach to national and economic security.

While res­ponses to natural disasters are ­already an issue for cabinet’s ­national security committee, Mr Morrison is expected to say they will now have greater emphasis.

He will say that findings from previous inquiries into natural disasters have been “forgotten and prioritized over time”.

“One of the first tasks of a royal commission will be to audit the ­implementation of previous recommendations, drawing on work that has already been done in this area,” Mr Morrison will say. “As the years pass, the bush grows back and fuel loads increase, people move in still larger numbers to live in fire-prone areas and dangerous fires occur again in a cycle which must be broken.

“We must continue to learn from this fire season so we are ­better prepared for the next one, whether that be the deployment of the ADF, local hazard ­reduction, access to resources such as aerial firefighting equipment, consistency of disaster recovery ­arrangements or resilience in the face of a changing climate.”

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported that residents of NSW Sara Haslinger and Michelle Wright both said if the commission is created one of the issues to be looked at is why Prime Minister Scott Morrison failed to meet with the fire chiefs who were warning months ago that the firefighting resources available were not adequate to deal with the bushfire season that was developing. Paul Preston of Victoria said he would like to see the military activated sooner next time.

Australian Prime Minister says he should not have vacationed in Hawaii during extreme bushfire activity in his country

In an interview he talks about areas for improvement in the future and proposes a royal commission to evaluate how the fire crisis was handled

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison shake hands
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison attempts to shake someone’s hand. Screenshot from Australian Broadcasting Corp. video.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked questions about the bushfire crisis in his country.

The topics discussed included:

  1. Things he “could have handled much better.”
  2. A royal commission to evaluate how the fire crisis was managed.
  3. A possible modification of Australia’s policy on climate change.
  4. His December vacation in Hawaii.
  5. The role of the military next time.

Two found dead in Kangaroo Island Fire in South Australia

More air tankers from North America will be be sent to Australia

Satellite photo smoke Australia fires
Satellite photo of smoke from fires in New South Wales and Victoria December 3, 2020. The red areas represent heat.

Two people were found dead on Kangaroo Island south of Adelaide, South Australia.

From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

An experienced pilot and his son have been killed in catastrophic bushfires that have ravaged more than a third of Kangaroo Island and destroyed homes and businesses. The family of tour operator and aviator Dick Lang has confirmed he perished in the blaze, along with his youngest son Clayton — a leading plastic surgeon who specialised in hand surgery. Dick Lang, 78, ran his own flight adventure business out of Adelaide Airport and was described as one of the nation’s “best bush pilots”.

Dick Lang lived and worked in the outback for most of his life, securing him the nickname ‘Desert’. His 43-year-old son was supervisor of surgical training at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, his family said. Dick Lang had flown rescue operations in desert regions and over Papua New Guinea.

“He loved the bush, he loved adventure and he loved Kangaroo Island,” his family said.

“Dick and Clayton were prominent members of the South Australian community who rose to the top in their chosen professions.”

Police said the men died on the Playford Highway in the centre of the island, and that one of the victims was found inside a car.

In a statement, the Lang family said the men were returning to the family property on Kangaroo Island January 4 after fighting a nearby fire for two days.

This brings the death toll in the Australian fires up to 23 people, which includes three firefighters.

High humidities and a 2.5mm of rain Saturday morning slowed the spread of the Ravine Fire on Kangaroo Island. South Australia’s Country Fire Service said the two major fires on the island have burned more than 170,000 hectares (420,000 acres) which is 39 percent of the 88-mile long island. Many structures have burned or been damaged, including Kangaroo Island’s Visitor and Information Center, the KI Wilderness Retreat, and Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. The Premier, Steven Marshall, said all buildings in the island’s Flinders Chase National Park had been “very extensively” damaged. It has been confirmed that the Southern Ocean Lodge, the high-end resort on the southwest coast that charges over $1,000 a night, suffered severe damage.

The bushfires in Victoria and New South Wales continue to spread and force residents and vacationers from homes and resorts.

Evacuees being ferried HMAS Choules
Evacuees being ferried to the HMAS Choules Australia DoD photo.

Naval vessels are being used to rescue those who were forced to flee to the coastal beaches. Small boats are ferrying them out to a ship in deeper water where those who are willing and able have to climb a ladder up to the much larger vessel built to carry 300 soldiers and 23 tanks. It is expected the ship will transport about 800 evacuees. Those who can’t board the ship and still want to leave, may be removed from the burnt-over area by helicopters, but visibility degraded by smoke could make flying difficult.

Department of Defence Australia helicopter rescue
Helicopters from Australia’s Department of Defence has been transporting fire refugees to safer ground. DOD photo.

In addition to the ships and helicopters being used for evacuation the New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons was blindsided upon finding out from the media that Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Saturday afternoon that 3,000 ADF reservists would be brought in to help with bushfire recovery efforts and $20 million would be provided for leasing four additional firefighting aircraft. Defense Minister Linda Reynolds said it was the first time that reservists had been called up “in this way in living memory and, in fact, I believe for the first time in our nation’s history.”

John Gould, President of 10 Tanker, said their company will be sending two more DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers to Australia as soon as the heavy maintenance presently underway is complete. He expects Tanker 912 to arrive in Australia on January 15 to be followed 10 days later by Tanker 914. They will join Tanker 911 that arrived in November. The DC-10  can carry up to 9,400 gallons of water or retardant.

From ABC:

Mr Fitzsimons said while he was thankful for the support, logistics would be complicated.

“I was disappointed and frustrated in the middle of one of our worst days with massive dislocation and movement of people,” he said. “I had my conversations with the Prime Minister’s office.”

As predicted, the weather Saturday in southeast Australia was hot, dry, and windy, setting temperature records in several locations — 120F degrees  in Penrith and 111F in Canberra..

Australian wildfire ordeal to worsen Saturday

Hot, dry, and windy weather in southeastern Australia on Saturday could cause the bushfires to spread even more rapidly

fires in East Gippsland
One of the fires in the East Gippsland region of Victoria, December 30, 2019. Photo by Ned Dawson for Victoria State Government.

One of the first clues that the bushfire season in eastern Australia was going to be abnormal was when the 737 air tanker just purchased by the government began to be used on a fairly regular basis shortly after it arrived during the southern hemisphere winter. It made its first drop on August 8, 2019 more than three months before summer began.

Since that first drop the intensity of the fire season slowly grew during the rest of the winter and fall, and by the end of November was in full swing showing signs of what has become an unprecedented fire season.

The hot, dry, and windy conditions predicted for Saturday could make a bad situation worse. At Canberra, the capital, the wind will shift 180 degrees in the morning to come out of the northwest at 20 mph. The temperature will max out under mostly sunny skies at 105F with the relative humidity in the lower teens.

Based on the expected conditions, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service is recommending that holiday makers leave certain areas before burning conditions become even more dangerous on Saturday. Some of the “Tourist Leave Zones” include Khancoban, Snow Monaro, Shoalhaven, Batlow, Wondalga, and South Coast.

Here is an example:

The fire situation has escalated to the point where thousands of residents and vacationers were forced at the end of the decade to flee to the coast where they turned around to watch as the fire followed, burning until it ran out of fuel at the sand.

Navy ships have been mobilized to help feed and evacuate the evacuees, but it’s not as easy as it might seem. One of the first tasks is to determine who among the thousands at Mallacoota, Victoria, are willing and able to climb a ladder from a small boat up to the much larger Navy vessel built to carry 300 soldiers and 23 tanks. It is expected to transport about 800 evacuees. Those who can’t board the ship and still want to leave, may be removed from the burnt-over area by helicopters, but visibility degraded by smoke could make flying difficult.

Since Australia does not have a central point for collecting and distributing information about widespread bushfires, exact numbers are difficult to obtain, but on the continent between July and December approximately 12 million acres (4.8 million hectares) burned, the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

In New South Wales alone as of January 1, 2020, the numbers of destroyed structures include 916 homes, 73 facilities, and 2,107 outbuildings.

There have been approximately 17 deaths related to the fires in Australia, including three firefighters.

Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons on Tuesday described the crisis as the “worst bushfire season on record”.

Meanwhile, two senior members of the government decided it was a good time to take vacations. The New South Wales Emergency Services Minister, David Elliot, came back home from the UK shortly after his personal trip was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald. Earlier he had said, according to the newspaper, that he would return “if the bushfire situation should demand it.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison cut his Hawaii vacation short following intense criticism.

Map fires and areas under threat Eastern Victoria
Map of fires and areas under threat in Eastern Victoria, Australia Jan. 2, 2019. Click here to download a high resolution version of the map.