Mick Keelty, who is conducting an enquiry into the cause of the recent Margaret River fire, Sunday listened to the often tearful and angry complaints of local residents. The former Australian Federal Police commissioner who investigated the February Perth Hills fire hopes to complete the enquiry by January 20, 2012
There was considerable anger at the behaviour of the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) in starting the fire two weeks ago with one speaker demanding criminal charges be laid. Many of the roughly 200 attendees had lost property and were upset that DEC had started various fires so late in the season with hot weather forecast. There was also a lot of concern over the major impact on the environment from the fire with some questioning whether the dune vegetation will ever recover.
Under the terms of the enquiry, Keelty is only looking at the cause of the fire and not its management. There were a number of questions regarding his terms of reference. He said that “some may see the terms of reference narrow” but he didn’t know why he was not asked to look into the management of the fire. He asked that the public wait and see the results of the enquiry and if they are not satisfied “they should contact their member”. One speaker expressed concerns that, as DEC and FESA are carrying out their own internal investigations into the handling of the fire, the results of their enquiries will just be a coverup.
Specific questions included why there had been inadequate protection of Walcliffe House, why there had been firefighters “sitting around” at Prevelly while houses were burning, why SMS message were late, why was DEC carrying out new burns at Redgate on the day after the fires ended and why does DEC not carry out “black-outs” on its fire.
There was also debate on the merits of the policy of prescribed burns with some calling for Keelty to look at the overall policy. He responding in saying that he had reviewed this issue in his earlier Perth Hills enquiry. He said that as we are already in the fire season it was urgent that he look at the implementation of the current prescribed burns policy and see if there were any systemic problems.
Keelty said he was specifically investigating prescribed burn 5020. He would look at the cause of the fire, the basis and circumstances leading up to the burn and the extent the burn was consistent with departmental procedure. Although he was specifically not to look at the policy of prescribed burns, he will review other options DEC had at the time. This will include the cost of doing nothing. He will also look at the resources that were available and the amount of prior community consultation.