April 14th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Howard's Coalition - fewer options left as election looms

EDITORIAL: The high cost of 'symbolic' politics

THE ENVIRONMENT: Bushfire victims take NSW, Vic govts to court

WATER: Details of PM's water plan - disaster for farmers

NSW STATE ELECTION: When will Liberals, Nationals ever learn?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Why young people read less / NSW's Knight with the Mournful Countenance / Journalistic hooliganism / The Easter Rising

INTELLIGENCE CORNER: Losing the war on the home front / Assessing the terrorist threat

SCHOOLS: Labor's standard threat to schools

MEDICAL SCIENCE: New developments in stem-cell science

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Australia caught between Beijing and Washington

SRI LANKA: Bloodbath looms in war-torn Sri Lanka

OPINION: An ABC of the ABC - a listener's guide


Millions squandered (letter)

Regional rail networks (letter)

Labor's Mugabe dilemma (letter)

David Hicks (letter)

Russia's Putin should not be demonised (letter)

CINEMA: Story to scare the daylights out of you - Lives of Others

BOOKS: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

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Bushfire victims take NSW, Vic govts to court

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, April 14, 2007
Bushfire victims in Victoria and New South Wales have launched legal actions against state government agencies for their alleged failure to conduct appropriate back-burning and fuel-reduction operations in order to reduce fire risk. Peter Westmore reports.

Bushfire victims in Victoria and New South Wales have launched legal action against state government agencies as a result of bushfires going back as far as 2001-2.

In New South Wales, 25 residents from the Blue Mountains have launched action in the NSW Supreme Court against the NSW Rural Fire Service, the local fire brigade, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Sydney Catchment Authority, as a result of damage caused by the 2001 Christmas Day bushfire.

The residents' solicitor Luke Torrisi told The Australian the fires had cost residents "in excess of $10 million" in home and business losses. This included 10 houses that were gutted by the fire.

"People have lost businesses, people have lost homes," he said.

The court was told a 2003 inquest into the fires heard from a fire-brigade controller who said that, had they been given adequate warning, local firemen would have saved all the buildings in Warragamba.

However, the Government is contesting the claim.

2003 bushfire

Separately, Wayne West, a farmer from New South Wales, is suing the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and the state's Rural Fire Service over the January 2003 bushfire which destroyed his property.

Interviewed on the ABC television program Four Corners (March 12, 2007), Mr West said he first contacted the NSW Fire Control Centre on January 8, 2003, after lightning had caused a small fire in a national park at a place called McIntyre's Hut. The fire burnt slowly for several days, but the NSW Rural Fire Service showed little interest in extinguishing it.

Peter Cathles was a senior officer in the Rural Fire Service working on the ground and in the Yass fire-control centre while the Canberra fires progressed. On or around January 9 he attended a meeting of fire chiefs in Queanbeyan, at which the McIntyre's Hut fire was discussed. He was surprised by a comment made by a member of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, who said, "It's burning pretty slow … why not let it burn?" The others at the meeting seized on that as "a brilliant idea and that was the end of the meeting".

Mr Cathles said, "They actually decided by consensus to do nothing and I … lived with this [for] a year or two and I ultimately wrote to the [ACT] Coroner, Maria Doogan, and told her this."

Mr Cathles said many local firefighters wanted to go to put out the fire, but were ordered not to by the local Rural Fire Service bureaucracy.

Later, when the bushfire had grown larger, the bureaucrats ignored local advice not to commence back-burning operations, because the weather had turned hot and windy. The back-burning operations later spread out of control, creating an even wider fire front.

Over the course of the 10 days, Wayne West called the Fire Control Centre 24 times, but was ignored.

Ultimately, the bushfire escaped from the national park, and destroyed his farm, burning his farm-house and equipment.

Mr West is now suing the NSW Government and the head of the NSW Rural Fire Service, Phil Koperburg, over the fire: "The only way we believe that the truth will be told is through legal action," he said.

In Victoria, the firm of Slidders Lawyers is acting for several hundred people living in rural Victoria whose property was damaged by bushfires in 2003, 2005 and 2007.

The firm, which has close links to the Victorian Farmers Federation, has pointed out that there has been considerable discussion concerning the damage caused by bushfires starting in National Parks and other government land and spreading to adjoining farms.

Mr Charles Slidders said many of these people had lost virtually everything they owned and the class action would encompass victims of bushfires dating back to the 2003 Alpine crisis.

"Every farmer who has suffered damage from fires spreading from government land is a party to the proceeding," he told AAP.

Mr Slidders said the government had been negligent in its fire-prevention obligation in national parks, and had repeatedly ignored warnings to remove forest undergrowth which had fuelled bushfires, in turn leading to the loss of farmland, property and livestock.

"Our argument is the state government failed to appropriately manage forest back-burning and fuel-reduction operations. It has an obligation … to help prevent forest fires and to reduce the consequences from fire spreading onto private property.

"We have an exceptionally strong case and the government is on notice."

By taking joint action, the legal costs and risks are shared by all the parties to the action, giving them a better chance in their proceedings against the government. It seems that only when governments face legal action for negligence will they accept their responsibilities.

- Peter Westmore.

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