Acting Chief of the Defence Force - State Mine fire near Lithgow
24 October 2013
AIR MARSHAL MARK BINSKIN: Good afternoon everybody. I'd like to provide you with some details of the Department of Defence inquiry into the explosive ordnance training activity at Marangaroo training area, which the New South Wales Rural Fire Service has identified as the cause of the State Mine fire near Lithgow.
Let me start by saying that 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 New South Wales police investigation. As is normal in this situation, you will know that New South Wales police investigation, or investigators, are preparing a report for the coroner, and from the outset, Defence has been open and transparent in relation to activity at Marangaroo, and we continue to cooperate fully with New South Wales authorities investigating the State Mine fire.
In addition to the New South Wales 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 explosive ordnance training activity, and the fire on the Marangaroo training area. The purpose is to fully determine the facts, which may identify any lessons to be learnt for us, and apply to practices and procedures not only Marangaroo in the future, but possibly at other training areas around Australia.
Now, we're not removed from what is going on around New South Wales at the moment or what has been happening in the past few weeks with regard to fires. Defence is a 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 who are involved with the fire fighting efforts 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 the 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 the bushfire effort throughout New South Wales and we're 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 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 who are out there day in, day out fighting these fires in very difficult and terrible conditions. I'd 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 at 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 family and friends of him. Thank you. I'll now take questions.
QUESTION: So what do we know about what started that fire, what does Defence know at this stage?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: At the moment we're ascertaining the facts, that's why we're doing our inquiry into that particular fire for our specifics. What I do know - and I saw the report when I got up here 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's call for an apology at this stage, how would you react to that?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: I think - I felt for the mayor last night when he was talking on TV, very emotional, very hard day. There was a lot of strain for him and in fact for everyone in the community. I've had the senior Australian Defence Force officer in the Blue Mountains talk to him this afternoon. He's actually very committed to the close relationship with Defence and 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: Can you confirm whether it was - was it an explosives training on Wednesday that started this - is that your information?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: So - we'll ascertain the facts as a part of our own inquiry but what I do know to date is it was an explosives activity, it was a demolition activity in support of our people that train for operations around the world. It was about 23 degrees, light winds at the time they made the decision to do it. The fire scale was on the lower end of the scale and there wasn't a fire ban. But, when the activity occurred there was a small fire that started. They responded, we always have our own fire equipment on standby for this but it's quite difficult because it was in an area where there is ordnance, and within 30 minutes the Rural Fire Service were there as well.
QUESTION: Was there a delay in extinguishing it, there seem to be some reports today that perhaps there was a delay that because of those ordnance or…?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: The ordnance - no, well 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 the fire had started to burn so they waited till it cleared that area and then started to fight it.
QUESTION: You must have watched in horror then as that fire took off and just kept growing?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: We're concerned with where the fire has been and as I've alluded to, we're not shying from our responsibilities here. And if - I am concerned with anyone that - or any property that is threatened by this.
QUESTION: There's no malicious intent here though was it, we have to be very clear, this isn't like people going out and deliberately starting fires?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: No, this was not deliberately starting a fire, this was an accident as a part of a training activity on a day where there was not 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 of this we can take to better - do better with our arranged practices both there, and there may be lessons out of that we can put around to our other training areas around Australia.
QUESTION: And what about the people that have lost their homes also, you know, different properties that were destroyed in this fire, will Defence compensate for that?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: Well, 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 investigation. That investigation will ascertain all the facts and we'll wait until that report comes out, when this all settles, so that we can fully consider it.
QUESTION: What was the timeline between the incident occurring, notification to Defence and notification to the RFS?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: So I - the actual details right around that will be determined as a part of our internal inquiry but the time, as I have it at the moment, was that the explosion occurred around about midday, 12 o'clock, very close to 12 o'clock. They have to wait for a small period after that just to check, after the activity occurs, that's only five minutes. They spotted a small fire, they started to fight that themselves. They had to move back from that because of unexploded ordnance and the RFS were there within 30 minutes.
So there - as I was told this morning when I was talking to those involved, it was 12:30 and the RFS was there. So that's very close timing and it shows that we do work closely with RFS, not just there but actually all the ranges around.
QUESTION: How many people involved? Like, when you say there's an activity going, on how many people would have been there?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: It was a course, I don't have the exact numbers but it was a course to train our explosive ordnance demolition technicians who operate around the world in those sorts of operations.
QUESTION: And where you saying your own Defence people lost homes in that fire?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: We have - no, not in that fire. We have a number of Defence personnel, both uniform and I think some civilian, who have lost propery in the fire or have actually been in harm's way in the Springwood fires. As you know, we're a large part of the community around the Springwood, Faulconbridge, Winmalee areas, and I know that there's some horrific stories out after that, not only for the whole community but I know specifically for some Defence people there.
QUESTION: Air Marshall, can you offer any sort of reassurance, I suppose, to people of the Blue Mountains by explaining perhaps the nature of the training that these personnel of yours engage in in that area and perhaps give a sense of its significance to Australia's defence need?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: How long have you got? I think what I'd like to do there is if I can take that offline and just - we can organise a briefing for the activities that we do, not only on that range but the ranges around Australia.
QUESTION: But presumably their work would be reasonably - it's quite significant?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: It is significantly important. As I said, these are explosive demolition technicians, these are the people that go in defuse improvised explosive devices, and many of the instructors that were on this course have just come back from operations where they do that. 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 Second World War around the region. That's the sort of work that they do. So it is very important work that these technicians do not just around Australia but around the globe.
QUESTION: When you say Defence personnel started to extinguish the fire, what did - did they use hoses?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: No, they have - I don't know what the exact vehicle looks like. I think it's a Striker vehicle that they use. I think that's the correct term for fire fighting. Plus they have all the backpack equipment. So it's very similar I think to what RFS use, but I'd have to put that to expert to know.
QUESTION: This was a no fire danger day, low fire danger day?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: It was high, so it was the second…
QUESTION: [Indistinct] high.
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: So it was low - 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 is we want to take into account all the issues as a part of this inquiry and find out all the facts so that if there's ways that we can do things better and take the lessons out of this, we will.
QUESTION: The different levels of responsibility that the Defence Force may accept, for example, accept the findings or accept the findings with apology, accept the findings with apology and compensation?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: At the moment, our focus is on the priorities right now, we'll let the New South Wales police - no, hang on - we'll let the New South Wales police do their investigation, determine all the facts and look at the outcome to that, and then work that out.
QUESTION: What are the possibilities?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: I haven't even looked at those possibilities yet.
QUESTION: Is there an apology at this early stage?
AIRMSHL BINSKIN: Oh, I mean, I do apologise because the - it has been identified that this fire was the start of that Mine fire, but as I've said before, we'll wait until the New South Wales police do their investigation and then they come out with their reports for the coroner and then we can work on it then. I think there's far bigger priorities right now with the fire fighting that's going on out there.
Thank you. Thank you very much.