CFA chief a sacrificial lamb, QC tells fire probe

CFA chief Russell Rees had been singled out as a sacrificial lamb, “perhaps on the idea that the public needs to see a scalp taken as a result of this proceeding”, his lawyer told the Bushfires Royal Commission yesterday.
Julian Burnside, QC, said the commission had criticised Mr Rees unfairly and he had been “hounded in his evidence by counsel assisting”.
Mr Burnside said Mr Rees had shared responsibility on Black Saturday with the chief fire officer of the Department of Sustainability and Environment, Ewan Waller. But the transcript of Mr Rees’s evidence ran to 480 pages of largely hostile questioning, and Mr Waller’s to only 220 pages of mainly friendly examination, he said.
“The distinction between the two is most striking and is continued in the content of chapter nine, especially, of the interim report,” he said. “Unless there is personal fault found against either Mr Rees or Mr Waller, it would be grossly unfair to single one of them out for responsibility because the joint enterprise did not avoid the tragic consequences of Black Saturday . . . It is inappropriate to blame either of them, but it is grossly inappropriate and grossly unfair to blame just one of them.”
Mr Burnside said attacks on Mr Rees were ill conceived as expert witnesses had said emergency systems must be decentralised and those at the top should not interfere with those on the ground. He received a testy response from chairman Bernard Teague, who told him to hurry up as he was getting “a little tedious”
Jack Rush, QC, senior counsel assisting the commission, denied any difference in the approach taken to Mr Waller.
He said the extra pages of transcript reflected the broader responsibilities of the CFA, which managed most of the large fires on Black Saturday.
DSE manages fires that start on Crown land and was responsible for managing the Murrindindi fire, among others.
Mr Rees told the inquiry a major cause of the failure to issue warnings to people in the path of the Kilmore East fire was the move that summer to an integrated headquarters housing the CFA and DSE. He said in the CFA’s own headquarters, the information unit that released warnings sat near the state duty officer, “so it was very easy to tell when things weren’t going right”.
In the integrated headquarters, the two information units were together, but the two state duty officers were side by side in a separate room from the units: “In bringing the unit together, we solved one problem, but I believe we created another.”
He admitted headquarters had had no quality assurance process to ensure warnings matched predictions for the path of fires. Last summer, one person reporting directly to the chiefs was given that task. He said DSE firefighters should be under CFA command and warned that climate change meant Victoria must keep fire preparations at a high level to be ready for “that cataclysmic event”.
Mr Rees’s resignation from the CFA takes effect next month.
Police and Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron will testify at the inquiry on Friday after a request from the commission this week.