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Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission will fail to protect Victorians and fail to stop history repeating itself

The Victorian Premier Brumby's Royal Commission into the January-February 2009 bushfires is a mere incident review. If Victoria is to be protected from firestorms in future, it should undertake a root cause analysis, including the numerous past investigations into bushfires, with a view to achieving a cultural shift in rural fire fighting methods, resourcing and emergency management and into ecology management, housing approvals in bushfire prone areas, building design in bushfire prone areas, bush arson criminology and into serious resourcing of rural fire management.

Indeed, given the repeated history of bushfires across Australia and the repeated uncontrolled nature of many of these leading to extensive property damage, the loss of thousands of livestock, widespread ecological destruction, the human lives lost and injuries, and the massive costs incurred every year, the scope of the enquiry should be escalated to a national level.

But the Victorian Commission's terms of reference focuses on the immediate causes and circumstances of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires. It focuses on the immediate management, response and recovery. This is a start, but the real start occurred in 1939 with the shock of Black Friday. It lead to the Stretton Enquiry, but many large and damaging firestorms have occurred since - so the Stretton Enquiry showed that lessons were either ignored or the application of those lessons were ineffective. The Esplin Inquiry of 2003 identified striking parallels between 1939 and 2002-3 bushfires. Now we have the 2009 Bushfires, but each investigation is disconnected from the previous one, almost as if to intentionally ignore history and any prior lessons learnt. Interstate and overseas, many major bushfires and their subsequent investigations have amassed research, insight and lessons. Why limit the investigation to one event?

Incident investigation will uncover causes and flaws and will likely make specific recommendations in the hope of preventing similar incidents. But root cause analysis goes beyond identifying the symptoms of a problem. But the Commission has not started with identifying the problem. Let's say that that at the core is the problem of preventing ignitions becoming firestorms. What are the causes of uncontrolled ignitions in the bush. Where are they typically lit? How are ignitions detected by fire authorities? What is the time lapse between ignition and detection? What is the time lapse between detection and response and eventual suppression? Which causes and interventions would mitigate the risk of these ignitions developing into uncontrollable firestorms? Are the ignition detection tools adequate? Are the communications tools adequate? Do we have the right tools and trained personnel in the right places to effectively respond? Is the entire detection, response and suppression system sufficiently integrated to deal with multiple igntitions in extreme conditions across the State at the same time? How would this be achieved? What budget would be required to have such resources and technology in place to achieve this standard? Is the problem indeed too big for Victoria by itself to adequately deal with and so is the problem in fact a national one?

How would a satisfactory solution be achieved without causing other problems like ecological damage and local wildlife extinctions? Then implement the recommendations and scientifically monitor their effectiveness. But the Commission is looking at what caused the specific ignitions, what damage the specific bushfires caused and specific responses. It will conclude what specifically should have been done in these specific incidents. It will lead to a blame game that will solve nothing. Subsequent ignitions if not predicted, detected, responded to and suppressed to prevent firestorms, will likely have different circumstances in different locations. So how will the problem have been solved by this Royal Commission? How will the Victorian Royal Commission prevent bushfire history repeating itself?

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