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(AUSTRALIA) ACT INQUIRY REPORT: Forty-five minutes of emergency services radio calls, as the fire began to grow in the Namadgi National Park south of Canberra, exposed a massive breakdown in communications #AceNewsDesk report

#AceNewsReport – Aug.02: And it is those critical minutes that will now be the subject of an ACT coronial inquiry — one the ACT government actively tried to prevent……

#AceDailyNews reports on How the ABC exposed a massive communications breakdown and sparked a coronial inquiry and the decision this week by the ACT’s Chief Coroner to hold an inquiry into the disastrous Orroral Valley bushfire shows justice won’t be swayed by political influence.

An aerial photograph from within a helicopter shows a patch of fire spreading through bushland.
This photo was taken by a crew member on board the army helicopter just minutes after it accientally sparked the blaze.(Supplied: Department of Defence)

The blaze, sparked on January 27, 2020 by an army helicopter’s landing light, went on to burn through 80 per cent of the national park, and spread over the border where it claimed a dozen homes.

It is the ACT’s biggest ecological disaster, but the ACT government has refused to launch any public inquiry, nor refer the matter to the coroner to investigate.

That’s despite a months-long ABC investigation uncovering serious inconsistencies about how the fire started and, critically, when authorities were alerted.

The government instead argued there was no need for an inquest as the incident had already been probed by a Legislative Assembly review, an internal Emergency Services Agency (ESA) review and an independent review.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr even called the ABC’s continued reporting of the incident an attempt to fill “dead air”.

“I’m not interested in a witch hunt or a blame game here, and I don’t think … it’s not going to undo the fire,” he said in January of this year, around the one-year anniversary of the blaze.

But none of those reviews delved deeply into Defence’s role at the time – a problem identified by Chief Coroner Lorraine Walker.

Ms Walker has said she would focus on the “45 minutes between the ignition of the fire and the subsequent communication of its location to the ACT ESA.”

Piecing together the timeline of events

The red of the fire and smoke can be seen from the mountains, Canberra in the foreground.
Canberrans were on alert as the fire burned out of control for about a month.(Supplied)

The Taipan helicopter touched down in the Orroral Valley about 1:30pm on January 27.

“Within seconds” its landing light sparked an inferno in the long grass.

Defence admitted to starting the blaze the following day, and it was long assumed that it was the chopper crew who then alerted authorities, kicking off the massive emergency response.

But the various internal reviews didn’t tell the whole picture and left nagging questions.

Who, for instance, radioed in about the unfolding disaster, and when?

So the ABC went back to the primary source — the emergency radio calls from January 27 — to get further insight into the feverish activity of that afternoon.

That task was surprisingly simple, using an online portal to dial up all radio traffic from ACT emergency services on the fateful day in question.

It made for fascinating — and frustrating — listening.

Those calls highlight a series of missed opportunities, confused communications, and questionable decisions.

A plume of smoke rises up from behind a hill, houses dotted about nearby.
Spot fires could be seen burning near Little Burra, NSW, as the fire burned out of control on January 31, 2020.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

Firefighters search for the source of the smoke

The ABC learnt that at about 1:19pm that day, a DC-10 water bombing aircraft was in the ACT region, and given approval to return to its base at Richmond, because of concerns it might get “smoked in” at Canberra airport.

In hindsight, it was perhaps the first big opportunity missed: having a large air tanker available to firefighters in the hours that followed would have been a significant addition to their arsenal.

About 10 minutes later, at 1:30pm, the Taipan chopper sparked the fire in the Orroral Valley — but there’s no reference to that in the ESA’s radio calls, which contained two-way calls between emergency authorities, fire towers, air operations, civilian helicopter pilots, and ground crews.

It wasn’t until 1:49pm — 19 minutes later — that the smoke was first noticed by a young officer from atop the Mount Tennent fire tower.

Play Video. Duration: 2 minutes 11 seconds
Radio calls show how fire crews struggled to locate the fire without Defence’s help.

Any blaze in the bush in the middle of a record heatwave fire season is treated with urgency, and the calls confirmed that within minutes crews were dispatched to find the source of the smoke.

Initially, it was rangers in trucks and bulldozers, but it soon became obvious that finding this fire was no easy task.

There followed a series of frustrating radio communications, with crews casting doubt on the instructions they had been given, and some workers sent on wild goose chases kilometres out of their way.

It took authorities 19 minutes after first spotting the smoke (2:08pm — or 38 minutes after the fire started) to narrow down the location to the Orroral Valley.

By 2:18pm — a full 48 minutes after ignition — they managed to get a “visual”, confirming its location.

By then, the fire was “going hard”, pumping out thick black smoke, and about to leap from the grasslands of the valley floor to its thickly forested hillsides.

Did the army make an emergency call?

A woman in hi-vis yellow clothing stands in front of a military helicopter.
ACT Emergency Services Commissioner Georgeina Whelan stands in the national park near the helicopter that would later spark the blaze.(ABC News: Craig Allen)

Through all the confusion of those radio calls one thing was obvious: any information the army chopper crew had about the location of the fire was not being passed on to those who desperately needed it.

The ABC then requested more documents under Freedom of Information laws, which only confirmed a massive communications breakdown had taken place.

Subsequent inquiries by the ABC confirmed that the chopper crew photographed the fire they had started, but only handed over GPS coordinates after landing at Fairbairn Airforce Base at Canberra Airport, 45 minutes later.

That raised questions — could the fire have been controlled or even extinguished if that critical information had been passed on to authorities sooner?

An aerial photograph from within a helicopter shows a patch of fire spreading through bushland
One of the photos taken from the Defence helicopter that sparked the Orroral Valley blaze.(Supplied: Department of Defence)

To ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan, it was all a moot point.

She’d told the media in the days that followed that fire was “inevitable” in the landscape that summer, and the cause of the fire was effectively irrelevant.

She also reinforced that her crews acted with all urgency given the information they had.

But the ABC understands her dismissal of the helicopter’s role in the fire — and her apparent protection of the army in the months that followed — made those same crews white-hot with anger.

Inquest should answer questions the government refused to address

Andrew Barr speaks.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr called inquiries into the fire “a witch hunt”.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

ACT Chief Coroner Lorraine Walker said this week that it was her intention “the inquiry be limited to the approximately 45 minutes between the ignition of the fire and the subsequent communication of its location to the ACT ESA”.

That time period is significant as previous government inquiries glossed over the apparent lack of interaction between the army crew in the air, and ESA controllers on the ground.

This scope may seem narrow, but Ms Walker has left herself room to probe more broadly if required.

And crucially, it gives the court the opportunity to consider the burning questions:

Why did the crew call in a PAN-PAN emergency for the helicopter, but not radio through the fire’s grid coordinates?

If the aircraft was damaged enough to neglect radioing back the coordinates, why fly over the suburbs of Canberra?

Why did the army insist on running parallel communications channels to the ACT Emergency Services Agency, and why did the ESA allow them to do that?

How could a crew member have time to photograph the fire they’d just started, but not use that same phone to make a triple-0 call?

Green grass grows among still burnt trees in the landscape.
Namadgi National Park is still recovering from the impact of the fire.(ABC News: Isaac Nowroozi)

Given it took an ABC investigation to reveal the 45-minute delay, perhaps the most pressing question for Canberrans is, what else is there left to uncover?

And why the lack of the political will to publicly investigate, discover and fix the issues that led to the territory’s largest environmental disaster?

It may prove to be an uncomfortable day in court – for the army, for the ESA Commissioner, and for the ACT government that is being dragged into a coroner’s inquiry it actively tried to avoid.

#AceNewsDesk report ……Published: Aug.02: 2021:

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