The headline is that the Australian Defence Force has apologised for causing the huge State Mine Fire that's destroyed homes and still threatens many, many more.
The other headline is that it took right until the end of a nearly 19-minute press conference for Air Marshal Mark Binskin to bring himself to use the word “apologise”, having resisted nearly all calls for exactly that word.
In fact, if you hadn't listened online but on the radio, you'd have missed the word “apologise” because most outlets cut the feed a few minutes in. So I've taken the trouble of recording Briskin's entire contribution to the press conference, so you can see how long it took before he got around to “sorry”.
I've put this below for relentless checkers, because my main point is this. The Army started the bloody fire, and it's taken days and lots of questions before the simple word “apologise” snuck into the language. The headline isn't “Defence apologises”, it's “Defence tries really hard to dodge apologising.”
I'm not surprised that Blue Mountains residents aren't satisfied. I can't say I was in direct danger on my watch-and-act patrol yesterday. I can't begin to imagine losing a home or a business to a bushfire. I was merely alone in a region that had been comprehensively abandoned, surrounded by bush, watching the fires and the weather, and hoping that I didn't have to try and actually fight a fire.
I didn't. Others, every one of which has my admiration and gratitude, did the hard work. But I'm not satisfied with the Army's attempts to dodge, deflect and hide behind process. And I'm furious that the apology gets elevated, and the attempts to hide behind process get … hidden.
Here's my transcript. Most of the journalists' questions are very poorly caught by the microphones, but the answers explain the context. The whole of the briefing is at the RFS's Facebook page.
BRISKIN: Training activity at the Marangaroo training area, which the NSW Rural Fire Service has identified as the cause of the State Mine Fire near Lithgow.
Let me start by saying Defence continues to treat this matter very, very seriously, and will not shy away from our responsibility to fully examine this activity, and importantly, to support the official NSW Police investigation.
As is normal in this situation, you will know that the NSW Police investigators are preparing a report for the coroner.
From the outset, Defence has been open and transparent in relation to our activities at Marangaroo, and we continue to cooperate fully with NSW authorities investigating the State Mine Fire.
In addition to the NSW Police investigation, we will also conduct our own inquiry into the specifics of the activity at Marangaroo that led to that fire. The Defence inquiry will look at the specific circumstances surrounding the explosion and ordnance training activity, and the fire on Marangaroo training area.
The purpose of our inquiry is to fully determine the facts, which may identify any lessons to be learned from it, and apply it to practices and procedures, not only at Marangaroo in the future, but possibly at other training areas around Australia.
We are not removed from what is going on around New South Wales at the moment, or what has been happening in the past few weeks as regards to fires. Defence is part of the local community, and our people live and work in and around Lithgow and the Blue Mountains, and indeed in many other areas affected by fires over the last few weeks.
Many of our members are RFS volunteers, and are involved with the fire-fighting effort across the state over the past week, and at the moment.
A number of Defence personnel have lost their homes, with many others also being affected by fires. Our thoughts are with them, and with everyone who is currently affected by the fires burning within New South Wales.
Over the past week, Defence has been assisting with the bushfire effort throughout New South Wales. We are providing accommodation and meals for fire-fighters, as well as refuelling and ground support for New South Wales Rural Fire Service aircraft, and we stand ready to support the emergency services in any way that we can.
I would also like to take this chance to offer my praise and admiration for the dedication and the courage of the RFS volunteers throughout their day-in, day-out fighting these fires in very difficult and terrible conditions.
I would also like to take this moment to personally say that my thoughts are with the family of the pilot who was tragically lost this morning, down fighting the fires on the South Coast. As a pilot, I appreciate the dangers of operations like this, and any accident like this really does hit close to home. So our thoughts are with the families and friends of him.
Thank you, I will now take questions.
BRISKIN: At the moment, we're ascertaining the facts. That's why we're doing our inquiry into that particular fire, [inaudible] the specifics.
What I do know, and I saw the report this afternoon that the commissioner has provided me, which was only finalised today, which has identified that that fire did lead to the State Mine Fire.
QUESTION: What do you think of the Blue Mountains mayor asking for an apology?
BRISKIN: Look, I felt for the mayor last night when he was talking on TV. It was a very emotional, very hard day, there's a lot of strain for him, and in fact everyone in the community. I've heard the senior Australian Defence Force officer in the Blue Mountains talk again this afternoon, he's [the mayor] actually very committed to the close relationship with Defence and with the community, and knows that we stand there to support.
But as I said, I understand his feelings, I really do. It's been a hard couple of days, for him and for the community.
QUESTION [inaudible but about training]
BRISKIN: We will ascertain the facts as part of our own inquiry, but what I do know to date is it was an explosives activity. It was a demolition in support of how people are trained for operations around the world. It was about 23 degrees, light winds at the time we made the decision to do it. The fire scale was on the lower end of the scale, and there wasn't a fire [?concern?].
But when the activity occurred, the small fire that started, they responded. We always have our own fire equipment on standby for this, but it's quite difficult because it's in an area where there is ordnance.
And within 30 minutes the Rural Fire Service were there as well.
BRISKIN: Personal safety always comes first, both for the RFS fire-fighters in this case and our own personnel. It was considered too dangerous to go onto the particular site, where this fire had started to burn. So they waited to clear that area, and then start to fight it.
BRISKIN: Oh, we're concerned with where the fire has burned, and as I've alluded to, we're not shying from our responsibilities here. And I am concerned with anyone that, or any property, that is threatened by this.
BRISKIN: No, this was not deliberately starting a fire. This was an accident as part of a training activity on a day where there wasn't a fire ban. But I want to be clear, we are doing our own internal inquiry into this, to make sure that any lessons out this, we can take to do better with our range practices both there, and there may be lessons that we can put to our other training areas around Australia.
BRISKIN: There's still a lot in the process to go here. This is not a Defence jurisdiction, that's why we're fully supporting the New South Wales Police investigation into this. And as you are aware, in fires of this type, the coroner normally asks the New South Wales Police to conduct investigations. That investigation will ascertain all the facts, and we'll wait until that comes out, when this all settles, so we can fully consider it.
BRISKIN: The actual details around that will be detailed in our own internal inquiry, but the time as I have it was that the explosion around about midday, twelve o'clock, very close to twelve o'clock, they had to wait for a small period after that just to check, after the activity occurred, that's only five minutes, they spotted a small fire, they started to fight that themselves, they had to move back because of the unexploded ordnance, the RFS were there within 30 minutes. So as I was told this morning, when I was talking to those involved, it's 12:30 and the RFS was there.
So that's very close timing, and it shows that we do work closely with the RFS not just there, but with ranges throughout.
BRISKIN: It was a course, I don't have the exact numbers, but a course to train our explosives demolition technicians, who operate throughout the world in those sorts of situations.
BRISKIN: Not in that fire. We have a number of Defence personnel, both uniform and I think some civilian, who have lost homes to fire or have been in harm's way, as you know we're a large part of the community around the Springwood / Faulconbridge area. I know there's some pretty horrific stories out of that, I know specifically force and Defence people there.
BRISKIN: We can take that offline, organise a briefing for the activities we do.
BRISKIN: It is significantly important. These are explosive demolition technicians. These are the people that go and defuse improvised explosive devices, and many of the instructors on this course have just come back from operations.
So that's the significance of the training that they do. Or they'll be out defusing unexploded ordnance, even ordnance that might be found from the Second World War around the region.
That's the work that they do, it is very important work, that these technicians do, not just around Australia but around the world.
BRISKIN: No, I don't know what the exact vehicle looks like ... a striker vehicle, I think that's the correct term for fire-fighting, plus they have all the back-pack equipment, very similar to an RFS [volunteer]. I'd have to put that to the expert.
QUESTION about fire-rating
BRISKIN: It was high, it was the second – it's right on the low-end spectrum of the new classifications. But we'll check all that – I know that for a fact – but what we'll do, take into account all the issues as part of this inquiry so we have all the facts, so if there's ways that we can do things better and take lessons out of this, we will.
BRISKIN: At the moment our focus is on, in terms of priorities right now, we'll let the New South Wales Police do their investigation, determine all the facts, and we'll look at the outcome. [inaudible]
I have, I have, I do apologise, because, it has been identified that this fire was the start of that fire, but as I've said before, we'll wait until the New South Wales Police to do their investigation, and they come out with their report, for the coroner, and then we can move on. I think there's far bigger priorities right now with the fire-fighting that's going on. Thank you.