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Responsibility failure for Victorian bushfires

Responsibility failure for Victorian bushfires

The Royal Commission into the Victorian bushfires released its interim report on Monday 17 August, recommending legislative reforms to clarify who is responsible for warning communities, mapping…

The Royal Commission into the Victorian bushfires released its interim report on Monday 17 August, recommending legislative reforms to clarify who is responsible for warning communities, mapping fires and considering evacuations.

The Commission found that statutory responsibility for issuing community warnings was lacking in the Country Fire Authority Act 1958.

"The Commission is of the view that this responsibility should have been understood and accepted by the CFA [Country Fire Authority] as a normal part of its functions," the report said.

"However, to remove any ambiguity between the roles of the CFA and Victoria Police, the Commission has recommended that the legislation be amended. The State has indicated that it accepts the need for an amendment. Unambiguous arrangements should be in place for the next bushfire season."

CFA chief officer Russell Rees did not take control of the fire fighting effort from the Integrated Emergency Coordination Centre and was criticised for his failure to issue warnings to communities such as Kingslake, Streathewen and St Andrews which were facing firestorms, the report said.

"At the IECC Mr Rees did not appear to become actively involved in operational issues, even when the disastrous consequences of the fires began to emerge," the report said.

"Mr Rees did not look specifically at warnings concerning the Kilmore East fire nor did he, given his knowledge of the spotting potential of that fire, ask anybody to check whether the Kilmore ICC (incident control centre) was producing timely warnings."

The State Emergency Response Plan (SERP) also drew criticism for failing to clearly designate the agency responsible for issuing warnings and recommending relocation.

"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 in an emergency ... The Commission has recommended that the SERP be amended to give clear responsibility to the control agency to issue warnings."

The Commission flagged that Victoria's Emergency Management Act 1986 would come under further scrutiny in its final report.

The Victorian fires, which are known as Black Saturday, claimed 173 victims and were described by the commission as a "calamity".

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