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April - June 1999

Wingello Coronial Inquest

Posted: 24/06/1999

The loss of Wingello senior deputy captain David Quinlivan and the injuries sustained by his seven colleagues brings home to us the dangerous, and often unpredictable nature of volunteer fire fighting. With the closure of the Coronial Inquest into Mr Quinlivan's death today, it is appropriate for me to address some inaccuracies that have attracted wide media coverage. Firefighting is a dangerous business. No one will argue that point. However, claims made during the Coronial Inquest that lives were being unnecessarily put at risk because of established and proven bush firefighting methods are inaccurate, misleading and totally without foundation. Every bush firefighting organisation in this country - including the National Parks and Wildlife Service and State Forests of NSW - adheres to the same criteria set down in national fire training standards. The type of attack mounted on a fire is governed by the immediacy of the threat, the safety of firefighters, the type of terrain and prevailing and forecast weather conditions. Methods of attack, depending upon circumstances, include indirect fire fighting (back burning from a distance), direct attack (the application of fire suppressants to a fire) and water bombing (in limited circumstances). The idea that fires ought not to be attacked unless they are an immediate threat to life is preposterous. To not do so would undoubtedly result in the wholesale loss of life and property. All bush fires, if not dealt with in some manner, will develop the capacity to inflict large-scale damage upon communities and their assets. All firefighters are required to adhere to safety principles, wear protective clothing and be trained in self-protection. Crew leaders are trained to assess fire behaviour, weather conditions, topography and a variety of fire attack methods. In regard to the supplying of equipment, it is the policy of the NSW RFS never to cut protective clothing funding. In the case of the Wingecarribee Shire, in the three years prior to the fire, all protective clothing requests from the Shire on behalf of brigades were met in full. It should be noted here that the Wingecarribee Shire Council has responsibility for the day-to-day management of local RFS Brigades under the Rural Fires Act 1997. On the issue of the use of aircraft, the NSW RFS has made extensive use of aircraft for firefighting. Over 70 were used during the 1994 fire emergency, but their use is limited to circumstances where they will have a real benefit. The Wingello fire was one of several burning on the day. The officer in charge of the crew correctly assessed that a backburn (indirect firefighting method) was the appropriate method for handling this particular fire, which would ultimately pose a threat to the township of Wingello (which has been burnt out on a number of occasions). An unusual weather phenomenon called a microburst has been implicated as a key factor in the tragedy. While the conditions in which they can happen are known, their occurrence is virtually unpredictable. A microburst is a strong downdraught created by a shaft of falling rain under certain conditions. When the microburst reaches the ground it creates a strong wind which radiates out in all directions. The wind is usually most damaging about 5 to 10 minutes either side of rain touchdown. Microbursts are quite localised and usually last for only 10 or 20 minutes. They can generate winds of well over 200 kph. In the Wingello incident the wind speed was not as fast, but still quite enough to change a small fire into an intense, rapidly moving, blaze. Given the horrendous and unusual situation in which the Wingello firefighters found themselves, it is a credit to their knowledge, skill and application of sound procedures that so many were able to survive. The NSW RFS will continue to focus on firefighter safety, but is ever aware of its broader community protection responsibility. Phil Koperberg NSW RFS Commissioner

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