‘I gave it everything I possibly could. In my view, I gave it everything, to the best of my ability’ BLACK
Soul-searching, yes. But Russell Rees has no plans to walk away.
IT’S an ugly question but it has to be asked. With 173 people dead in the Black Saturday bushfires, has CFA chief Russell Rees found himself wrestling with a distressing sense of personal responsibility?
The Bushfires Royal Commission has heard of bungles over warnings that were never released. Lawyers assisting the commission have accused Mr Rees of being out of touch with his basic responsibilities that day, including the oversight of warnings and the protection of life.
Yesterday, in his first interview since the commission began, the man who has been with the CFA since he was a boy defended himself. Adamantly.
“I think every single person who’s involved in this questions how and what they did, before, during, after,” he said. “There’s that introspectivity that you go through.
“Hindsight’s a bloody wonderful thing . . . You always look back and say, ‘Well, could I have done better? Could I have done this, or could I have done that?’ ”
But he concluded that, for him, the answer was no.
“I gave it everything I possibly could. In my view, I gave it everything, to the best of my ability. And all I can do is say, ‘If there are things I have to improve on, if there’s things that we as an organisation have to improve on, then we just take it on board and go forward.’ ”
There have been calls for his resignation. Mr Rees said he had not considered it.
“That’s never entered my head. I knew that I needed to commit towards the future . . . We can’t walk away from the fact that this is Victoria’s — sorry, Australia’s — worst natural disaster. And for me to walk away, I don’t think I could live with myself. It’s pretty simple. And people are saying they want me.”
Had Premier John Brumby discussed his future with him?
“No. I’ve never discussed my future with the Premier . . . All I know is that I was told the Premier is supportive of me, and that happened while I was [recently] on leave.”
Russell James Rees, 53, joined a CFA junior brigade in his home town of Moe when he was 11.
He had loved the agency long before that, barrelling along on his bike to local fires to watch the battle to extinguish them.
The family of six kids — Mr Rees the youngest — didn’t have much and it was free entertainment.
He trained as a primary school teacher, but the CFA offered him a job when he graduated. He became chief officer eight years ago.
He has a ponderous way of speaking, with methodical blocks of ideas laid out in steady order.
At the commission he walked with an increasingly heavy tread as the days progressed, but on his own turf he seems somehow lighter.
When he went home around 10.30pm on Black Saturday he knew that dozens had died. He also knew the toll would rise. On the Sunday morning, he heard of the razing of Marysville.
“I don’t know if there’s a difference between disbelief and unbelief, you know? You don’t want to believe it, but you know it’s true . . . you think, ‘Heaven forbid, this is real true, this is real true.’ ”
Any questions about how the CFA’s processes failed on the day draw from him reassurances that lessons have been learnt.
The commission has heard of turf being defended against common sense and of a choice to obey protocols rather than release much-needed warnings. But Mr Rees has not reviewed the performances of key people.
There has been no “tackling individuals”, he says. “If you chase the individual down, in environments like this, individuals will actually cease to want to participate, and when they do, they’ll participate in a total risk-averse way which, in the end, is detrimental to your outcome.
“Because emergency service management is not a perfect environment. No matter where you are, you don’t know everything.”
But wasn’t risk-averse behaviour actually one of the problems, with a reluctance by some to break rules?
“Yeah.” He pauses. “But I wasn’t there and neither were you . . . It’s all so easy to point the bone at individuals who gave it everything and made errors. The reality is, for many of those, the person who feels the most pain is actually the individual themselves.”
He says it has been argued that Black Saturday was just a natural disaster, “that it’s not about systems at all”.
He would not put that forward but he has this to say about bushfire.
“It’s almost like layers of a cake, where the suppression is almost the last layer of the cake. It’s how we choose to live, where we choose to live, how we manage our vegetation, how we mange our regulatory control in terms of building . . . and how we manage what I call fire prevention, which is stopping fires in the first place.”
Victoria’s climate has deteriorated seriously and the future seems to hold little promise of improvement, he says.
This is why he rejects the idea that it was bad luck for him that such a disaster happened on his watch.
“I don’t think it’s bad luck. I don’t look at it as luck at all. This is what’s happening in our environment. This is what we’re now dealing with. Would you have thought that the chief of the New York Fire Department would have had to deal with the collapse of the twin towers?”
First published in The Age.