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Orroral Valley fire draft terms of reference outlined in ACT Coroner’s Court | The Canberra Times


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The lawyer for a group of NSW residents just across the border is fighting for them to take part in the coronial inquiry into the Orroral Valley fire that tore through a national park and sparked two fires in the Snowy Mountains. The ACT fire was ignited by a defence helicopter in Namadgi National Park on January 27 last year and it burnt across the territory for one month. It also led to the Clear Range and Calabash fires across the border that left numerous facilities and homes destroyed. Chief magistrate Lorraine Walker in July announced the inquiry, which will focus on the 45 minutes it took for the helicopter crew to alert the ACT Emergency Service Agency to the fire’s location after their aircraft’s landing light accidentally ignited the blaze. The inquiry came before the ACT Coroner’s Court on Tuesday for a directions hearing when counsel assisting Kylie Nomchong, SC, said the draft terms of reference of the inquiry would explore three key issues. First, the circumstances of the operation by the Australia Defence Force, ACT Emergency Services Agency and ACT Parks and Conservation Services. Second, the arrangements between those organisations about their roles and communications. Third, a detailed examination of the roles, movements and actions of personnel aboard the helicopter ANGEL21 and, in particular, the communications between those personnel and the relevant organisations and the impact of those matters on efforts to control the fire’s spread. “The fire spread and burnt through large sections of the park, causing widespread damage to flora and fauna and infrastructure,” Ms Nomchong said. John Maconachie, QC, representing the group of about nine Bumbalong, NSW, residents, argued for them to have “a voice in determining the cause and origin” of the ACT fire because they had a sufficient interest in it as the fire led to them suffering materially and emotionally. “A bushfire ranging around your property and putting your life at risk has a capacity to impact upon your psychic and your emotional wellbeing … in an enormously impressive way,” Mr Maconachie said. MORE NEWS He said that despite accepting that the inquiry was limited to the territory, his clients were “not so far away that they are culturally and economically divorced from the ACT and Canberra”. “Far from it. They are in real and tangible ways members of the broader society that is the ACT,” he said. “Their emotional response to this horrific event is something that must be given great weight in determining whether or not they should have a voice.” He said their case would not be trying to run “some sort of behind-the-scenes negligence action”. “We would see our interest as being to assist you [coroner] to see the issue of cause and origin from a perspective different from that of the Commonwealth and from that of the ACT,” Mr Maconachie said. “To bring a sharper focus to the forensic contest.” He also cited the 2013 bushfires in saying fires “know no borders”. “They came crashing into Canberra and the people in Canberra had a very clear and very important interest in what caused one of the fires that started in NSW,” he said. Counsel assisting the coroner, Ms Nomchong, however, said there could be sufficient interest only if an inquiry’s findings would have adverse impacts to their interests, which she said did not exist in this case. “The difficulty presented to your honour is that the terms of reference are crystal clear: that is, the inquiry begins at the border between the ACT and NSW,” she said. “It is for that reason that the inquiry does not extend to the Clear Range Fire.” The chief magistrate has reserved her decision on the application. ACT Emergency Services Agency, ACT Parks and Conservation Services and the Australian Department of Defence have been asked to assist the inquiry. Ms Nomchong said there would be discussions with the defence department and the relevant ACT departments about conducting an aerial view of the site. She said it would help if defence could consider conducting the view “in a helicopter of the same kind as ANGEL21” to help address the inquiry’s questions. Margaret Jones, SC, representing the ACT departments, said they could “facilitate the land transport aspect” of the view. “We have indicated we can also assist with the arrangement of the helicopter view, subject to discussion,” Ms Jones said. “ESA has advised that the most advisable time would be in early March at the end of the high-risk weather season.” Michael Fordham, SC, for the defence department, requested more time to obtain the information requested in the subpoena issued in August. Mr Fordham said some information, including emails and situation reports, have been produced but they needed to more IT expertise to inspect 120 email accounts that may also obtain relevant information. “Regrettably, resources are stretched with the royal commission and other things going on, but we have a dedicated team working on it and it’s for that reason that we ask for the end of March rather than make a promise and effectively breaking it,” he said. The inquiry is listed for another directions hearing on January 19 before the hearing proper, which is listed tentatively for July 11-15 next year. The first part of the brief of evidence has been ordered to be served by January 12. Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:

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