Coroner criticizes authorities over fatal fires in Australian capital

A coroner criticized authorities Tuesday over their handling of a firestorm that destroyed almost 500 houses in Australia's capital, saying it was a miracle the death toll was no higher than four.

Four blazes, started by lightning in the area around Canberra, burned for 10 days before converging to create a fatal firestorm that struck the city of 330,000 on Jan. 18, 2003.

Coroner Maria Doogan said the Australian Capital Territory's Emergency Services Bureau had not warned residents that the fire threatened suburbs until less than 30 minutes before the first homes caught fire.

"This late notification caused people to be placed in even greater danger in their homes and trying to flee in vehicles in the face of a fire that arrived 20 to 30 minutes later," Doogan wrote in her 843-page report.

Emergency Services Bureau officials had "lulled themselves into a false sense of security" because they had managed to fight back the summer bush fire season a year earlier without losing a single Canberra building, she said.

Doogan also found that by Jan. 16 the government of the Australian Capital Territory or ACT, which administers Canberra, "knew a potential disaster was on Canberra's doorstep but did nothing to ensure that the Canberra community was warned promptly and effectively."

"Frankly, on the evidence before the inquiry, it is a miracle that no more than four people died," Doogan wrote to a government minister in a letter that was published in her report.

The coroner found the bureau failed to aggressively fight three of the fires in the initial days, and failed to warn police of the risk of fire reaching the Canberra suburbs, reports AP.

Doogan also said the bureau lacked plans to deal with fires reaching the suburbs, and failed to properly use additional firefighting resources brought from neighboring New South Wales state.

Extremely hot and windy conditions, drought and a limited number of fire fighters worsened the situation, Doogan said.

Mike Castle, the Emergency Services Bureau's former executive director, issued a statement saying that the fire was "extraordinary and no one predicted it."

"It is easy to be blinded by the wisdom of hindsight when hearings such as these are conducted," he said.

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