Mallacoota Fires revisited
Mallacoota Fires revisited

Inquiry chair sends pointed message on bushfire commission

The "Black Summer" royal commission is not looking to "point fingers" over the bushfire disaster as it works to deliver urgent recommendations for change, warning Australia will face similarly catastrophic conditions again.

The commission held its first formal hearing this morning, with chair and former Defence Force chief Mark Binskin acknowledging the inquiry would be significantly altered by the coronavirus pandemic.

But he said royal commissions had a "proud history in Australia" and the bushfire inquiry would "be no different".

"These fires had a profound impact on our nation," Mr Binskin said, noting that the summer disaster would "long linger in our national psyche".

The commission has already held 17 community forums and received 400 submissions, hearing stories of people "trapped in their own country for days" without fuel, food, water and power in the aftermath of last summer's fires.

Mr Binskin said the commission had also heard stories of survival and community spirit, as he praised volunteer firefighters as "the heart and soul of this nation".

"We want to hear more stories of those who were on the ground in affected communities and we want to learn from you," he said.

Fire closes in on Mallacoota in January. Picture: David Caird
Fire closes in on Mallacoota in January. Picture: David Caird

"The commission cannot do its work without you."

The commission, set up by the Morrison Government, will provide recommendations on improving natural disaster management and co-ordination, increasing preparedness for and responses to natural disasters in the context of a changing climate, and improving the legal framework for the Commonwealth's involvement in natural disasters.

Mr Binskin said the commission was not seeking to "point fingers or apportion blame to any jurisdiction, government or individual".

"We are focused on national co-ordination and looking for lessons for the future," he said.

Senior counsel assisting Dominique Hogan-Doran SC said natural disaster arrangements were "one of the most reviewed issues in the history of Australian governance", with more than 240 reviews carried out in the past.

 

The fires claimed the lives of 33 Australians and destroyed 3000 homes. Picture: David Caird
The fires claimed the lives of 33 Australians and destroyed 3000 homes. Picture: David Caird

 

"We detect a worrying consistency in the themes explored and repetitiveness in the recommendations made," she said.

"This is no time to reinvent the wheel."

Ms Hogan-Doran said the coronavirus pandemic and associated public health restrictions had already had a "significant impact on the work and planning of this royal commission".

She outlined two phases of public hearings, from the middle of May and late June, but said it was unlikely anyone would be able to physically attend, with the hearings to be streamed online instead.

"The important work of this royal commission will not stop … We will not only work in private," Ms Hogan-Doran said.

The fires claimed the lives of 33 Australians and destroyed 3000 homes, 7000 other structures, 80,000 head of livestock and millions of native animals and plants.

Overall, 10 million hectares were burned - 1.6 per cent of Australia's total land mass.

The commission is required to deliver its recommendations by the end of August.


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