Defence Force and RFS confusion over who was to fight fires, inquiry hears

A basic ute with a 500-litre water tank on the back and a hose that was too short was the extent of the Defence Force's fire-fighting capacity at a large explosives training area that caught alight this year.

The fire at the Marangaroo Training Area near Lithgow, which was started by a botched detonation exercise, quickly grew out of control because the so-called Stryker Unit could not reach the fire.

The State Mine fire burnt for almost a month, destroying three homes, seven structures and 56,000 hectares of bushland.

At a Defence Force inquiry on Monday, the Rural Fire Service came under attack for knowing there was a huge risk of fire at Marangaroo but never looking at the inadequate firefighting capacity and not undertaking hazard reduction burns for almost two decades.

There was long-standing confusion over who was supposed to be the first responder and who was responsible for hazard reduction burns, with the RFS saying it was the Defence Force and a 2011 site assessment for the Defence Force saying it was the RFS.

A separate memorandum of understanding between the two parties was also never signed.

Several other plans to conduct hazard reduction burns were either ignored or never agreed upon.

To add to the confusion, the RFS did not have permission to go on to the site because of unexploded bombs, despite the acknowledgement that firefighting capacity and hazard reduction burning at the site were grossly inadequate.

When the Stryker Unit failed to stop the October 16 fire from spreading, two Defence Force sergeants tried to put it out with shovels and knapsacks and were almost hit by shrapnel from previously unexploded bombs.

By the time the RFS were called, the fire was out of control and hidden bombs were going off throughout the area.

Lithgow district RFS manager Superintendent Greg Wardle accepted that there were "serious misunderstandings" between the two agencies but deflected responsibility for bushfire safety in the area and said he never signed off on various reports.

Senior counsel assisting the inquiry, Lieutenant-Colonel David Jordan, accused the RFS of worrying too much about writing and signing reports rather than simply making sure backburning occurred at Marangaroo.

"The bushfire management plan is a very thick and weighty document," Lieutenant-Colonel Jordan said.

"Yes it is," Superintendent Wardle replied.

"If I was to suggest to you that this might be a case of there being great concern with a plan and the formulation of a plan and whether it has been signed or not but a lack of focus on implementing recommendations in the plan, what would you say?" Lieutenant-Colonel Jordan said.

"That certainly, from Defence's point of view, would be the case," Superintendent Wardle said.

Superintendent Wardle said he was aware of the huge risk of fire at Marangaroo because it had been expressed by volunteers as well as detailed in the 2011 site assessment report by environmental consultancy firm GHD and a separate bushfire management plan.

"Surely that would provide an imperative to you, as district manager, to drive that hazard reduction management plan forward?" Lieutenant-Colonel Jordan asked.

"Well there has been some conversations with the consultant with relation to this area. Part of this plan was put together with some assistance from RFS," Superintendent Wardle replied, to which the inquiry's president, former judge John O'Meally, said: "That's not quite an answer to the question asked."

Superintendent Wardle then added: "I believe it's the bushfire management committee's responsibility to drive it, not necessarily the RFS."

In October, the Defence Force apologised for starting the fire during a training exercise.

The inquiry was establish to examine whether it could have been prevented or better managed.

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