‘I thought Nixon was on duty’

VICTORIA Police senior command was in disarray on Black Saturday, with Christine Nixon’s deputy yesterday telling the Bushfires Royal Commission that he believed she was formally on duty on that day.
Deputy commissioner Kieran Walshe also yesterday became the second senior officer forced to correct mistakes in earlier evidence. He admitted errors about his contact with Ms Nixon on the day and over the time he left home to go to police headquarters that evening.
Mr Walshe said he spoke to Ms Nixon on the Thursday before the fires, and it was arranged that she would be on duty and he would be on standby. “I had understood she was on duty from shortly before 1pm,” he said in a witness statement. “It is my belief that we did discuss what we would do on the weekend, because I did tell [an assistant commissioner] that I would be on standby at home on the Saturday.”
This appears to contradict Ms Nixon, who initially said in a statement to the commission that she “prepared for an active day”, but later said she was not rostered on. She spent parts of Black Saturday having a haircut, being interviewed by a biographer and going out to dinner.
Asked whether she had treated the day as if she had been on duty, she said it was not her job to swoop in and take control when she had officers such as Mr Walshe who were more experienced in emergency management.
“We always had the view that any of us were available 24 hours a day and that we could either come in ourselves if we saw it was necessary or, in fact, be called in if we thought that was appropriate,” she told the commission. “That was probably the model that was put in place.”
Mr Walshe said that he did not know why Ms Nixon had told the commission that she felt able to leave emergency headquarters at 6 pm on Black Saturday partly because she knew Mr Walshe was coming in at around 7pm.
Mr Walshe said he had not spoken to her, and he had intended to go straight to police headquarters, not the emergency centre: “I could only assume that it was her belief that when I came in that I would have gone to [emergency headquarters]. I had no conversation with her at any time.”
Mr Walshe agreed under questioning by counsel assisting the commission, Melinda Richards, that telephone records showed he had been wrong to testify last year that he had been in touch with Ms Nixon throughout the day: “That was my honest belief at the time. Certainly, having the ability to do some forensic sort of examination of the telephone records, it is quite clear that I did not do that.”
Ms Nixon was forced to correct evidence that she spoke to Mr Walshe during the day, in which 173 people were killed.
Mr Walshe said he spoke to Ms Nixon for the first time that day in a conference call at 9.45 pm to discuss a media briefing.
He had previously told the commission that he left home about 7pm to go to police headquarters. He admitted yesterday that this was closer to 8pm because he was delayed making personal phone calls.
He said he had been trying to assist his son-in-law contact relatives who lived in Strathewen. “He was quite concerned about their welfare, as was I, as was my daughter. I was endeavouring to assist him as best I could, so I made some phone calls.” Mr Walshe also rang his sister at Maiden Gully about her welfare.
Ms Richards asked: “It is apparent, is it not, that [Ms Nixon] was not actively carrying out the role of deputy coordinator of emergency response on that evening and neither were you?”
Mr Walshe disagreed, saying Ms Nixon had to be satisfied only that arrangements were in place and were working.
The commission was also shown an email by a police sergeant, Darren Dew, who said a police unit charged with helping provide resources, the State Emergency Response Co-ordination Centre, was closed at midnight “when the fire was still out of control and massive evacuations were taking place”. He said he could not believe the centre had been closed.
He said that, at the time it was closed: “The fire was still out of control on several fronts. There were two death tolls on the board, Confirmed 6 and Unconfirmed 76. At that stage they knew that Kinglake had disappeared . . . Common sense would dictate that hundreds of people would have been evacuated or displaced.”
Mr Walshe said the SERCC had not been closed and two officers had handled requests for resources overnight.

Most fire victims failed to prepare

FORTY-FOUR per cent of those who died in the Black Saturday fires had a disability, were in ill health or were aged over 69 or under 12, and one woman was eight months pregnant, the Bushfires Royal Commission was told yesterday.
In the first detailed analysis of 172 fatalities to be made public, Professor John Handmer also reported that several couples had argued over what to do, with the man in each case wanting to stay.
“There are several instances where women who fled survived,” he said. “There is also evidence of disagreement where women stayed, leading to more fatalities.”
Fifty-eight per cent of those who died made no preparations for fire, with 53 per cent having no fire plan, and 25 per cent having no general knowledge of bushfire.
“A few fatalities were in denial of the fire threat to the last, purposefully ignoring — in some cases, mocking — the advice of friends, relatives or agencies,” said Professor Handmer. “These people had made a conscious decision to take no action.”
The findings by Professor Handmer, a disaster management expert at the Centre for Risk and Community Safety at RMIT, and two other researchers, prompted a fierce attack on the stay-or-go policy by senior counsel Jack Rush, QC, who asked whether the policy should be buried as it had failed to prompt many people to prepare.
Only 20 per cent of those who died were well prepared to stay and defend, while a further 14 per cent had made some attempt. This was despite the fact the definition of “prepared” was minimal: a water supply and mops and buckets to use as firefighting equipment.
Professor Handmer agreed the policy required a great deal of re-evaluation. Fourteen per cent of people died trying to flee, even though the policy warned late evacuation was likely to be deadly, and 27 per cent died in bathrooms, a place the policy had not suggested for refuge.
Mr Rush suggested the room might have been chosen because it had water and no windows that could explode and allow embers in.
Some children were found dead in little more than bathers, despite warnings to cover up, and one-third of those who died were in houses that might not have been defendable. Strong winds left some homes defenceless by lifting roofs or blowing windows in, he said.
But people unexpectedly survived by sheltering in cars, sometimes by moving from one site to another to avoid heat and flames. There was not a single fatality among women and children trying to evacuate by car.
Professor Handmer speculated that modern cars might provide better protection than in the past, and said there was also evidence that modern homes were less defendable because they were often large and had two storeys.
Thirty-four per cent of those who died had intended to stay and defend, 26 per cent had wanted to wait and see, 15 per cent had no discernible intentions, eight per cent stayed to shelter but not defend, and 16 per cent had intended to leave. The report said few of those who died had contingency plans, and 30 per cent were taken by surprise by fire.
Professor Handmer agreed fire agencies had known for more than a decade that many people ignored the policy and planned to wait and see on a fire-danger day.

Blame laid with CFA, Brumby

FIRE chief Russell Rees and the CFA failed to protect Victorians from the Black Saturday bushfires and should be forced to take greater responsibility to avoid a repeat disaster, the Bushfires Royal Commission has said.

In its interim report, the commission said the Victorian Government should revamp its controversial Stay or Go policy, with the CFA required to tell home owners whether or not their house was defendable.

It said the CFA’s chief officer Rees did not become involved in hands-on management on Black Saturday “even when the disastrous consequences of the fires began to emerge”.

The report said Mr Rees did not check warnings about the Kilmore fire that killed 121, did not speak to controllers at the two centres managing that fire, and did not know of fire behaviour experts or their predictions for the Kilmore blaze.

The commission said all this meant it was “difficult to understand” how the CFA lived up to its responsibility to give local communities information to ensure their safety.

The CFA should have accepted that issuing warnings was part of its job on Black Saturday, even though this was not spelled out in legislation, the report said.

It recommended that the law be changed to make it clear that warnings and advice to relocate were the responsibility of the agency managing a fire.

The report stopped short of suggesting the Stay or Go policy be ditched, but said people should be warned that staying to defend carried many risks, including death. Its 51 recommendations include:

– The re-introduction of community refuges.

– Incident controllers to be given more responsibility for issuing warnings, even when they are not managing the fire concerned.

– Emergency call services including triple-zero be boosted on high-risk days.

The report exposed bungles at the highest level, with the State Emergency Response Plan (SERP) not defining who was responsible for warnings and recommending evacuations.

“In addition, the means by which warnings were issued and evacuations were made on 7 February bore little resemblance to the arrangements in the SERP,” the report said.

“Diffuse or unclear responsibility for warnings and relocation is at best unhelpful and at worst life-threatening.”

The report recommended that whichever agency was responsible for an individual fire – the CFA or the Department of Sustainability and Environment – it should also be responsible for warnings and advice to relocate.

It gave a detailed analysis of what went wrong with management of the Kilmore fire. The commission heard evidence that warnings were drafted but not issued, due to CFA protocol, or authorised but not aired, due to internal communications problems.

The commissioners – chairman Bernard Teague, Susan Pascoe and Ron McLeod – made several recommendations that flowed from this.

They called for all incident control centres to be properly staffed and equipped; for the most experienced controller available to be appointed, regardless of which agency was managing the fire; and for senior controllers to be authorised to issue warnings they believed necessary, even if the warnings related to a fire being managed from another centre.

The Stay or Go policy and bushfire brochures had failed to emphasise adequately the risks of staying and defending, the commission said.

“The risks should be spelt out more plainly, including the risk of death,” the report said. “People should also be encouraged to recognise that not all houses are defendable in all situations and contingencies need to be considered in case the plan to stay and defend fails.”

The CFA should have the authority to give specific advice about the defendability of individual properties and whether residents should leave.

“For those who plan to leave, there should be more explicit advice on triggers that should be used to determine when to do so,” the report said.

People also needed more options than stay or go, because the preferred option might not be possible or might fail. “The availability of local areas of refuge is an important and essential complement to the ‘Stay or Go’ policy.”

The commission welcomed the State Government’s announcement of “neighbourhood safer places” to provide informal shelter but also recommended the setting up of community refuges, which should be defended by the CFA during a fire.

It said the lack of refuges failed people who found themselves in danger when their plans failed, were overwhelmed by circumstances, changed their minds or had no plan.

“The lack of refuges in Victoria also fails to assist people in areas threatened by fire who are away from their homes, such as employees, visitors, tourists, travellers and campers.”

The report recommended that Victoria Police review its guidelines on roadblocks, which were inflexible, and upset people who were already under pressure.

The commission recommended that warnings be clearer, that commercial radio and television stations also be allowed to issue them, and that sirens be played before the broadcasting of serious warnings to alert listeners to pay attention. It said community warning sirens should be re-introduced in towns that wanted them, and it recommended increasing the capacity of the triple-zero service and the Victorian Bushfire Information Line – which failed to answer 80 per cent of calls on February 7 – to handle spikes in volume.

It also suggested that a single multi-agency “portal” for bushfires be designed to allow incident control centres to post information and warnings directly. The portal should upload information simultaneously to both CFA and DSE websites.

Premier John Brumby said action was under way on most of the 51 recommendations. The Government would respond to all by August 31.

“The single most important responsibility I have got between now and the rest of the year is to make our state as fire-safe and as fire-ready as possible,” he said. He said the report “is basically endorsing ‘Stay or Go’, but what they are saying is that there needs to be a much stronger focus on leaving early”.

Millions of dollars had already been allocated to new fire-safety initiatives, including an $11.5 million public education campaign on the importance of leaving early, $30 million to upgrade incident control centres, and $167 million to improve emergency services communication systems. On the question of who should take responsibility for system failures on Black Saturday, Mr Brumby said: “There were systems which worked well on the day and systems which didn’t . . . (but) we had more than 600 fires that day.”

Nationals leader Peter Ryan said the report was a damning “catalogue of tragic failures” and showed the GBlame laid with CFA, Brumby overnment had failed to fix problems they knew might lead to a tragedy.

“The unfortunate truth is that much of what has led to [the deaths of 173 people] was known to the Government and the agencies before these events transpired,” he said. “There are across many of [the report’s] pages findings that I think are very compelling in terms of a criticism of the Government, its lack of preparation in relation to the day’s events, the fact that for many years – particularly in relation to warnings – they knew or they should have known there were deficiencies there that needed to be accommodated.”


– ADVISE people in bushfire-prone areas the safest option is always to leave rather than stay and defend. Children, the elderly and infirm should not fight fires.

– GIVE chief officer Russell Rees legislated responsibility for issuing warnings to the public.

– ENSURE warnings focus on maximising potential to save lives, and include a level above extreme.

– ISSUE more explicit information about risks and give specific advice about the defendability of individual properties.

– DIRECT firefighting resources, as a priority, to refuges where people are sheltering.

– RECOMMEND residents ‘relocate’ rather than stay and defend.


– IDENTIFY neighbourhood safe areas such as car parks, sporting grounds, amenities blocks and dam walls that could be used as community refuges.

– INVESTIGATE technical possibility of sending warning messages to mobile phones by the 2009-10 bushfire season

– DEVELOP guidelines for use of fire station sirens to alert communities to bushfire threats.


– END ABC’S exclusive role as emergency broadcaster and enlist commercial networks in disseminating bushfire warnings.

Four die as two men turn back


A FAMILY’S attempt to flee a burning home on Black Saturday failed when two men turned back to rescue a mother and child, and all four perished, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
Gary Bartlett and his friend Michael Real turned back to the house from the gate of the Bartletts’ property in St Andrews when they realised that Jacinta Bartlett and daughter Erryn, 6, were not behind them.
The only survivor of the family was Erryn’s sister, 12-year-old Maddison Bartlett. Maddison and another family friend, Judith Hawkins, fled 500 metres down the road to a dam, where both sheltered successfully despite Maddison’s life-threatening burns.
In parts of her statement read yesterday to the Bushfire Royal Commission, Ms Hawkins said that she and Mr Real were guests of the Bartletts on Black Saturday. They went into the house when they heard the roar of a bushfire but tried to flee when windows on the upper storey exploded inwards and an internal staircase caught fire.
Mr Bartlett said they had to get out, opened the door and then slammed it shut again. Then he said, “We’ve got to get out or we’ll die.”
Ms Hawkins said she had pulled on Mrs Bartlett’s arms and told her to get out, “but Jacinta appeared to be in shock”.
When Mr Bartlett opened the door a second time, he ran out, followed by Mr Real, Ms Hawkins and Maddison.
At the gate of the property, 30 metres from the house, Mr Bartlett stopped and asked, “Where are the others?”
Ms Hawkins reported, “I just said, ‘They wouldn’t come.’ Gary turned around to go back to them and Michael just turned around too and followed him.”
Ms Hawkins and Maddison jogged half a kilometre down the road, clutching wet hand towels to their faces to protect against smoke: “I just remember saying out loud, ‘Got to keep moving.’ ”
Fire crews found the two and poured drinking water on Maddison’s burns before lifting her into the back of a police car, which drove her to an ambulance. Ms Hawkins also sustained serious injuries.
Ms Hawkins later told police that the family had been keeping watch on smoke coming over Mount Sugarloaf, with Maddison checking websites on her laptop.
They had filled gutters with water but had not been worried about fire that day: “It was almost like they didn’t realise it would get to them.”
Friends of Mr Bartlett told police that he had planned to leave in the case of a bad fire.
The Brown family of Bald Spur Road had also planned to leave in case of fire and that afternoon had thought the Kilmore fire to be “miles away”, Adrian Brown, 33, told his father by MSN Messenger. He and his wife, Mirabelle, 30, and their three children — Eric, 8, Matthew, 7 and Brielle, 3 — died in their home.
Bald Spur residents Richard and Eileen Zann, their daughter Eva Zann and neighbour Karma Hastwell, 88, had also planned to leave the mountain in case of fire but were probably caught by surprise on Black Saturday, the inquiry heard. Their remains were found in the Zann house.
Sam Matthews, 22, died alone at St Andrews trying to defend the family home.
Hearings on the Kilmore East fire continue today.

CFA pagers failed on Black Saturday


THE Country Fire Authority’s pager system had a huge message backlog on Black Saturday because many messages were unnecessarily sent more than once, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
A report into the pager problems, commissioned by the CFA, concluded that the delays were due to the volume of incidents and the “ballooning effect” of individual messages being linked to multiple recipients.
Consultancy firm Mingara Services reported that:
■There were 10,624 messages logged that day but only 3043 were unique messages.
■Some messages were transmitted up to 90 times.
■Administrative messages were delivered up to 12 hours late and non-emergency messages up to 2½ hours late, but emergency messages were all delivered within 76 seconds.
Of non-emergency messages, 5703 of 7784 were delivered outside the two-minute benchmark, and of 3533 administrative messages, 1069 were delivered outside the five-minute benchmark. Administrative messages are the only level open to firefighters who want to send out information.
Ian Powell, manager planning and strategy with the CFA’s technology services, agreed under questioning that some non-emergency and administrative messages that day contained urgent news such as wind-change warnings.
The Age revealed last week that on Black Saturday the emergency pager system was locked down to 20 per cent of capacity by the government and the CFA, which were concerned that a high volume of messages would create black spots across the state. The 29,000 pagers alert firefighters.
Mingara found that the pager system on Black Saturday was congested by duplication and linkage of messages, which meant one message automatically went to several recipients. The problems would have been lessened if the system had been set up with messages delinked, which would have required two messages rather than eight to activate a strike team, for example, said counsel assisting the commission, Melinda Richards.
The company running the pager system reported that if messages had not been linked on Black Saturday it would have cut the sending time of emergency messages by 14 per cent, non-emergency messages by 83 per cent and administrative messages by 55 per cent.
Mr Powell said the CFA had mostly removed linked messages. But it had not taken up Mingara’s suggestion that CFA users be given access to the emergency and non-emergency levels of messages, which have higher priority.
It was believed CFA staff were not in a position to prioritise emergency messages, Mr Powell said. He said problems with limited radio channels that day could have been avoided with better communications planning and radio discipline. He said some black spots remained because of lack of funds.
The Justice Department’s emergency services policy and support director Craig Lloyd said a new public safety communications strategy had been approved and goes to cabinet today. The current system covered 98 per cent of people and 95 per cent of the state, he said, but aspects of the system were run by different contractors, making change complex.

A Kinglake family falls between the cracks


REBECCA and Darren Webber say they knew they were in for a rough ride when they decided to go through with the purchase of a property in Kinglake after Black Saturday.
They had paid a deposit for their dream home weeks earlier, and when it was destroyed by fire, they thought the insurance they had taken out on it would pay for rebuilding.
Instead, they have battled a series of misfortunes that left them homeless. “We didn’t know it would be this rough,” says Mrs Webber, her voice breaking.
With their three small children, including four-month-old Eden, the Webbers have spent the past six weeks living in a friend’s shed.
Mrs Webber had wanted to move to Kinglake to give her children the benefits of the great outdoors — fishing, hiking, bike-riding — but instead has been fighting to keep the great outdoors from invading them with mice, wasps and millipedes.
Their immediate housing problems were solved last week, when they were given the keys to a unit in Kinglake’s temporary village for bushfire survivors.
The Webbers qualified for the unit and for a bushfires case manager, and had earlier qualified for a bushfire caravan and portable bathroom that housed them for several months.
Mrs Webber says they had to move out of the caravan because it was too small after the baby was born: “There wasn’t room for all the stuff you need to look after a baby, and there was no way to keep her warm.”
But the Webbers do not qualify for any grants from the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund. They applied for a rebuilding grant and for a transitional housing payment and both were refused. They appealed on compassionate grounds and this was also denied.
The vendor of their property, who was the formal owner of the house on the date that it burned down, qualified for payments and took them. He was paid final settlement by the Webbers on March 20 last year.
It is the Webbers who now find themselves bearing bushfire-related hardships that they had not anticipated. They are paying a mortgage, but the 12 months of accommodation payments from their insurance company have run out, and the house is not rebuilt.
They are reeling from the extra costs involved in having to rebuild to fire-resistant standards. They also made a mistake in asking an architect to design their new home. They told him the budget was $300,000 but his design was costed by builders at $900,000, so the $50,000 they spent on design and surveying for that project was lost.
After enduring illness with a high-risk pregnancy last year, Mrs Webber, a credit manager, has had to return to work early and become the main breadwinner as her income is higher than that of Mr Webber, who is a plasterer.
Mr Webber says, “More than anything, I am disappointed in the way this has been handled, how long it’s taken, and the fact that we only ever acted on the advice of our case managers and basically all of that has been thrown back in our faces.”
In a statement to The Age, the bushfire fund said it operated on the principle that anyone whose primary place of residence was destroyed or damaged in the fires was in hardship, and that $140 million had been paid out.
“In the circumstances of Mrs Webber and her family, they chose to go ahead with the purchase of a property that was destroyed by the bushfires. They did not own the property at the time of the bushfires. The appeal fund money was not intended to go to people in these circumstances.
“If the Webbers signed a contract that in some way locked them into the sale, regardless of the condition of their property, then the fund may reconsider their case. However, to date they have not provided the appeal fund with that evidence.”
Mrs Webber says, “What they are saying to me is, ‘You made your bed and you lie in it, you and your children.’ Nobody could have predicted what it was going to be like trying to rebuild. We couldn’t foresee all of this when we decided to go ahead with buying the house.”
The fund said that the Webbers’s case was not affected by the fact that the previous owner had already claimed grants for that address: “The owner’s case was considered separately and that individual’s circumstances taken into account when providing support.”
The house was to be the Webbers’s first home.

‘I had a haircut and worked on my memoirs’


SHE confessed that she went to the hairdresser in the morning. She confessed she was interviewed for her memoirs in the afternoon. But a defiant Christine Nixon yesterday refused to quit despite a fierce public debate about her actions on Black Saturday.
“I intend to honour my commitment to bushfire-affected communities and to continue as the chair [of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority],” she said.
Revealing further embarrassing details of her activities that day, she told a hastily assembled press conference in the foyer of her Collins Street workplace: “I had a haircut on the morning of February 7. It was a recurring appointment that I could have cancelled. At 9.30 that morning, I felt that I was able to keep the appointment knowing I was contactable through the hour and a half at the location.
“In the afternoon, as stated to the royal commission, between 1.30pm and 3pm, I returned from the State Emergency Response Co-ordination Centre to my office, where I continued to work on both personal and police business, as well as monitor the radio and the internet.
“The personal matter was a recurring commitment with a person assisting me with a biography. This meeting was cut short to around 45 minutes.”
The person helping with her memoir was Age journalist Jo Chandler, who had taken leave from the newspaper to work on the project for Melbourne University Press.
Echoing her evidence to the commission, Ms Nixon insisted: “None of those matters were more important than the bushfires, and they had no impact on my willingness or ability to do the job, or to be contactable on the day.
“I’ve said before and I’ll say again that with hindsight I wish I’d stayed at the co-ordination centre that evening. However, I strongly believe that it would not have changed what happened on the day.”
Her revelations followed two days in which she took leave as controversy raged, and rumors yesterday that a media outlet planned to run a story detailing what she had done during two periods on Black Saturday when, she told the commission, she was dealing with personal matters.
Reporters for several outlets had privately speculated that she was at the hairdressers in the morning. In evidence she had said she went to a regular appointment in Ascot Vale, that it took an hour and a half, and that the radio was playing in the background but the station was not the official fire station, 774.
Ms Nixon had told the commission that she received no information about the fires during the 90 minutes she was in her office, and that she was not told during that time that the Pomborneit-Weerite fire and the Churchill fire had ignited.
Ms Nixon has been under intense pressure to quit her post heading the reconstruction effort since it was revealed that she left the emergency control centre at the height of the blazes to dine at a North Melbourne pub. She was recalled to the commission on Wednesday to explain gaps in her evidence about that and other issues.
Asked yesterday why she was revealing the details now but did not do so in her evidence, she said, “I did not believe that it was relevant . . . The royal Commission had the opportunity on the day to ask questions, to judge my behaviours, and they chose not.”
Ms Nixon also hit out at “wild” speculation over her movements on Black Saturday and media approaches to her elderly parents.
Blaming some of the criticisms on her “enemies” from her time as police commissioner, Ms Nixon said her sex had also played a role. “I have been around a long time. As a woman I have always been judged more harshly than some others, but I’ve understood that.”
“The royal commission will determine whether or not I made a mistake,” she said.

Fuel reduction programs fall short, hearing told


VICTORIA’S fuel-reduction programs are inadequate and the state should burn off between 5 and 10 per cent of public land each year, senior counsel assisting told the Bushfires Royal Commission yesterday.
Jack Rush, QC, said Victoria urgently needed to increase burns to reduce the bushfire risk, with a minimum annual target of 385,000 hectares.
“The recommendations are not made because they are easy,” he said. “They are made because there was not sufficient fuel-reduction burning done in the past . . . The state of Victoria needs to accept the great need to work towards that sort of target to ensure people are properly protected, where the state is able to protect them, from bushfire.”
Counsel’s written submission argued that most burns should be between 500 and 1000 hectares, and that between 70 and 90 per cent of an area chosen for a planned burn should be burned: “Near towns it is sought to protect, very large areas for treatment might be required.”
It said planned burns moderated the spread of the Beechworth fire on Black Saturday and slowed the Kilmore fire in many places. “Even in catastrophic conditions, fuel reduction by planned burning can reduce spotting and ember[s].” In moderate conditions, it made it much more likely a fire would be suppressed, it said.
Mr Rush said compulsory acquisition of forested land in private hands might have to be considered because private owners could not be forced to comply with burns.
Victoria now burns about 130,000 hectares a year, or less than 2 per cent of public land.
Kerri Judd, SC, said the state backed a progressive increase in planned burning, but resisted the idea of a target. She also criticised the figure of 385,000 hectares as ill-informed because some public land, such as sand dunes and wet forest, was not treatable by fire.
The state’s submission estimated there were 5.5 million treatable hectares in total, and 5 per cent of that would be about 275,000 hectares. The state agreed that burning was one of the few ways to reduce fuel to limit the ignition, speed and intensity of bushfires. But it warned that planned burning was not a “silver bullet” in reducing risk and had to be considered with other strategies.
Complications included the limited range of weather conditions under which burns could be done.
The state’s submission also said that in forests such as those around Kinglake, which contain mountain ash, it would not be possible to burn the recommended 70 per cent of an area.

Police commissioner ate while Victoria burned


THE credibility of the former Victorian police chief Christine Nixon has been battered by admissions she had no contact with emergency services for almost three critical hours on Black Saturday, and that she misled the state’s bushfires royal commission.
Yesterday Ms Nixon was forced to deny repeatedly that she had deliberately failed to reveal she had gone out to dinner at a hotel on Black Saturday. Last week, Ms Nixon told the commission she had gone home, “had dinner, gone backward and forwards”. Media later revealed she had dined at a North Melbourne hotel with her husband and two friends.
Yesterday Ms Nixon strenuously denied that failing to mention the hotel was an attempt to avoid public embarrassment, saying she had thought the dinner irrelevant to the commission’s inquiries. She also denied that she had deliberately misled the commission on other issues over which she admitted she was inadvertently in error.
Phone records also contradicted that she kept in touch throughout the day with Assistant Commissioner Kieran Walshe, and that she spoke to the Police Minister, Bob Cameron, twice that day. She told the commission last week that she had not spoken to him.
There were no texts or calls sent or received on her phone from 6pm, when she went home, until 8.46 pm, a critical few hours in which police first learned that up to 40 people had been killed.
Under cross-examination from Rachel Doyle, SC, Ms Nixon said: “I didn’t intend to mislead anybody. I didn’t intend to misinform. That’s not a practice I have.
“I didn’t do a good enough job in preparing this statement and I have to say I have taken a very significant amount of heat since then for that. But that doesn’t mean that I was trying to be misleading. It doesn’t mean I was trying to undermine the commission or be inappropriate. It just means I should have paid more attention.”
Ms Nixon said the errors regarding Mr Walshe were because she just assumed she had spoken to him: “That had been my practice [in previous fires] to pick up the phone.”
Ms Nixon said it had been difficult to write her statement as she had never written an account of her movements that day, and she was trying to recall from memory matters now 14 months old.
Yesterday Ms Nixon admitted that she received no information at all about the fires between 6pm and 8.45pm.
Ms Doyle said: “It’s just that when you did a media interview on 3AW last week, you told Mr Mitchell that you had dinner for an hour and ‘people knew where I was’. Who knew where you were?”
Ms Nixon: “I certainly knew where I was and I didn’t see any point in telling anybody. What I mean by that was … they knew that they could contact me.”
Ms Nixon said she could have cancelled the dinner with no consequences. Ms Doyle asked why she had not. Ms Nixon said: “Because I was very confident … that we were dealing with things.”

Nixon’s public humiliation

THE credibility of former police chief Christine Nixon has been battered by admissions she had no contact with emergency services for almost three critical hours on Black Saturday, and that she misled the Bushfires Royal Commission.
In a gruelling 75-minute return to the commission yesterday, Ms Nixon was accused by counsel of deliberately concealing the fact that she went out to dinner on the night of Black Saturday as the disaster was unfolding.
She was also forced to concede that phone records showed she was not in touch with any of the key emergency services people for three hours on the night of February 7 last year, including while she was at dinner.
But Premier John Brumby last night continued to stand by her, rejecting fresh calls for her sacking as head of the bushfire reconstruction authority.
In her initial appearance at the commission last week, Ms Nixon testified that on the night of Black Saturday she had gone home “had a meal and then I went backwards and forwards”.
It was later revealed in the media that she had dined at a North Melbourne hotel with her husband and two friends.
Yesterday Ms Nixon strongly denied that her failure to mention the hotel was a deliberate attempt to avoid public embarrassment. She said she had thought the dinner irrelevant to the commission’s inquiries.
She also denied deliberately misleading the commission on other issues over which she said she was inadvertently in error.
It was revealed that:
■Phone records contradicted a claim in her witness statement that she kept into touch throughout the day with her deputy, Assistant Commissioner Kieran Walshe
■She spoke to Police Minister Bob Cameron twice that day. She told the commission last week she had not spoken to him at all.
■There were no text messages or calls sent or received by her phone from 6pm, when she left the fire emergency headquarters, until 8.46pm. This was a critical few hours in which police first learned that up to 40 people had been killed in the fires.
Ms Nixon’s phone records, received by the commission yesterday, showed no calls between herself and Mr Walshe that day until a conference call at 8.46pm to discuss a media conference at which he would confirm several deaths.
Under scathing cross-examination by Rachel Doyle, SC, Ms Nixon said: “I didn’t intend to mislead anybody.
“I didn’t do a good enough job in preparing this statement [to the commission] and I have to say I have taken a very significant amount of heat since then for that. But that doesn’t mean that I was trying to be misleading . . . It just means I should have paid more attention.”
Ms Nixon said errors regarding Mr Walshe resulted from her just assuming she had spoken to him: “That had been my practice [during previous fires] to pick up the phone . . . I assumed, until you showed me the records, that that had been the case.”
Ms Nixon said it had been difficult to write her statement to the commission as she had never written an account of her movements that day, and she was trying to recall from memory matters now 14 months old.
Ms Nixon admitted that she received no information at all about the fires between 6pm and 8.45pm. This was despite the fact that the assistant commissioner at emergency headquarters, Steve Fontana, had received information at 8.30pm and 8.43pm that there were credible reports of up to 40 deaths at Narbethong, Arthur’s Creek, and Yarra Glen.
Ms Nixon said she had not told Mr Cameron, Mr Walshe or Mr Fontana that she was going out for dinner.
Ms Doyle said: “When you did a media interview on 3AW last week, you told Mr Mitchell that you had dinner for an hour and ‘people knew where I was’. Who knew where you were?”
Ms Nixon: “I certainly knew where I was and I didn’t see any point in telling anybody. What I mean by that was . . . they knew that they could contact me.”
Ms Doyle: “When you heard nothing, the whole time you were out at dinner, did you assume that no news is good news?”
Ms Nixon: “No, I didn’t.”
Ms Doyle repeatedly suggested to Ms Nixon that she “deliberately omitted” reference to the meal being at a pub because “you knew that to do otherwise would reveal you were not able to monitor the situation, as your statement suggests”.
Ms Nixon replied repeatedly that she had put good people and good processes in place. “It was not my job to swoop in and take control. When you have good people who are more skilled in emergency management than I am you let those people do the job.” But she admitted that, in hindsight, she should have stayed at headquarters longer. “That would have given comfort to a great many people.”
She admitted she should not have said in her statement that she treated Black Saturday as “an active working day” after receiving a text message from Mr Fontana at 6am.
Asked how that description fitted with having two private appointments that day, she said: “When I look back on that statement, that language is probably not appropriate.”
But Ms Nixon fiercely denied that she had her telephone off for the three hours in which she was not contacted: “The idea that I would have turned my phone off when I knew it was a difficult situation and I knew people might need me to do something . . . I find abhorrent.”
Former premier Jeff Kennett said Ms Nixon’s should be sacked “more so than ever” for betraying trust of the public and deserting her post. And Opposition leader Ted Baillieu said yesterday’s evidence confirmed her position was untenable.
But Mr Brumby said: “Christine has admitted she made mistakes on Black Saturday. She has corrected the record on her evidence.
“I believe she is the best person to continue the work she has begun rebuilding with the bushfire affected communities.”
6am Text from assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana saying Bunyip fire had broken containment lines.
9.30-11am Personal appointment.
11am Husband drives her to state emergency response centre, where she is briefed on fires.
12 noon AC Fontana says he briefed Nixon in person. Nixon can’t remember if it was by phone or in person; her statement says it was by phone at 11.40am.
12.20 Nixon is contacted by Superintendent Rod Collins, who is in emergency headquarters and they talk for 3 minutes 29 seconds.
12.26pm Call from AC Fontana (although both in the same building at the emergency centre).
12.54pm Several texts from AC Fontana over the next hour, ending at 1.43pm.
Nixon last week said she received no updates on the fires while she was in her office from 1.30 to 3pm.
3.34pm Phone call from ‘Unknown’: Nixon said this was a retired deputy commissioner in the NSW police.
4pm Minister Bob Cameron calls her. Nixon had no recollection of this when she gave evidence last week. She said they had not called each other at all that day.
Around 5pm Nixon is briefed by fire chiefs Russell Rees and Ewan Waller.
5.55pm Nixon calls Cameron.
There is no more activity on her phone for three hours, until 9pm.
By 8.40pm AC Fontana knew deaths would number at least 40.
6pm AC Fontana drops Nixon off in North Melbourne.
7pm-8.20pm Dinner with husband, her personal assistant and AC Bernice Masterson at the Metropolitan Hotel, North Melbourne. Drank a soda, lime and bitters.
8.46pm Nixon receives conference call from police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe, AC Fontana and media adviser Nicole McKechnie lasting 8 minutes 22 seconds.
9.30pm DC Kieran Walshe gives media conference about 14 deaths.
9.43pm Nixon receives text from Fontana.
9.53pm Nixon calls Cameron about press conference.
Receives text from NSW police agreeing to a request she made for help with disaster victim identification.
10.47pm Nixon texts AC Fontana to tell him NSW would help with victim identification.
10.48pm Fontana calls her.
Call from Victoria Police HQ 11.52pm Another text from Fontana.
11.54pm Nixon texts her driver to make arrangements to visit fireaffected areas the next day.
Ms Nixon said there was no contact between herself and Premier John Brumby.
The only contact she had with DC Walshe, her deputy, regarding emergencies, was in the conference call with the media adviser.
In her statement last week she said she spoke to him throughout the day.