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Further delays to Black Summer bushfire inquiry

Supercharged by climate change, the Black Summer fires left a trail of physical and mental damage.

Supercharged by climate change, the Black Summer fires left a trail of physical and mental damage. Photo: Getty

A coronial inquiry into a devastating bushfire near Canberra during Black Summer has been postponed for a second time, adding to months of delays.

The inquiry into the January 2020 Orroral Valley bushfire started last November, but was postponed after one day of evidence when ACT Chief Coroner Lorraine Walker tested positive for COVID-19.

The matter was due to resume in the coroner’s court this week, but has been delayed until June to accommodate the availability of participants.

A searchlight on an MRH-90 Taipan army helicopter started the bushfire in the Namadgi National Park, just outside of Canberra.

The helicopter was assisting bushfire prevention efforts in the ACT at the height of Black Summer during 2019/20 and was looking for remote helipads.

At the centre of the inquiry is why it took those aboard 45 minutes to inform the ACT Emergency Services Agency that a fire had broken out in the area.

On the first day of hearings, the coroner was told the chopper’s crew had landed for a toilet break when they inadvertently started the bushfire with their hot searchlight.

An onboard recording heard one of the helicopter’s passengers yell “Come up, come up, we’ve started a fire, turn the searchlight off.”

The helicopter only stopped for about one minute before returning to Canberra airport, but neither the pilots nor passengers contacted emergency services to let them know they had started a fire, which one pilot estimated was already “200m by 200m” when they evacuated.

The Orroral Valley bushfire destroyed 80 per cent of Namadgi National Park and tore through more than one-third of the ACT, finally being extinguished after burning for more than five weeks.

The ACT government had questioned the need for an inquiry into the fire, and in response to previous media reporting of the cause Chief Minister Andrew Barr said he was not interested in a “witch hunt or a blame game”.

The inquiry was then announced in July 2021.

Ms Walker said during the initial proceedings the inquiry wasn’t about “crucifying any individual or decision made in the heat of the moment”.

“We’re here to explore how we can learn from it with a view to enhancing everyone’s safety in the future,” she said.

The court will resume hearings in early June.

– AAP

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