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The inclusion of any link does not imply endorsement. A former employee of the Country Fire Authority reveals that the organisation spent years ignoring a fire prediction model that was developed in-house and repeatedly offered to the top brass. JOSEPHINE CAFAGNA, PRESENTER: The ability to predict the path of a fire has become one of the central questions of the Royal Commission as it pours over the events that led to Australia’s worst peace-time disaster. Now, more than six months on, Stateline can reveal that the Country Fire Authority ignored for years before Black Saturday a fire prediction model that was developed by one of its own staffers and repeatedly offered to the organization’s top brass. DAVID PACKHAM, FORMER CSIRO FIRE SCIENTIST: There’s no doubt in my mind that some people who perished would not have perished if they’d have had access to the information on Ron’s model.
RON SHAMIR, FORMER CFA ANALYST: I was getting certainly no formal response, no offers to make this into a formal project. No offers to invest any resources in it. I think that these kinds of predictions are the basis on which you might make sensible strategic decisions. I don’t know why it’s not done.
JANE COWAN, REPORTER: For all the talk of unprecedented conditions and unstoppable infernos, there are those who’ll tell you Black Saturday was a disaster years in the making, and not just in the baking bush. From the usually tightly-controlled ranks of the Country Fire Authority, a voice has emerged to reveal the fire agency passed up the chance as long ago as 2003 to have a working fire prediction model. RON SHAMIR: Well this is the type of fire that I was interested in being able to predict. It should produce a accurate enough prediction within a few seconds of being provided with a point of origin of the fire. JANE COWAN: While working as an analyst for the CFA, Ron Shamir developed a fire prediction model before the now-esteemed fire ecologist Kevin Tolhurst had anything ready to demonstrate. RON SHAMIR: It was simple, so it didn’t need a supercomputer to work on, because of its simplicity so that you could actually have the potential to use it in the field, in fact on the fire ground. Whereas the other models that were available needed a lot of time in order to prepare information to be put into them.
DAVID PACKHAM: As far as I can see, Ron’s model is potentially the most accurate operational model I have yet seen. JANE COWAN: But, when Ron Shamir showed his model to CFA fire chiefs, he said he was met with a startling lack of interest. RON SHAMIR: I found that it didn’t matter how many demonstrations I conducted, that they all ended up with the same outcome, which is that I’d hear nothing at the end of the day. JANE COWAN: Much has been made of the fact that fire prediction was a science in its infancy when Black Saturday hit, at least within the fire services. Ad hoc mud maps abounded, but within the top ranks of the CFA, inside the Integrated Emergency Coordination Centre, serious fire prediction just didn’t happen.
No, CFA didn’t produce any predictive maps of the Kilmore East fire other than the mud maps that I’ve been referring to. GEOFF CONWAY: We – we don’t have within CFA very many qualified fire behaviour analysts who either have the skills or the time to produce those sorts of documents. JANE COWAN: None of this comes as a surprise to Ron Shamir. RON SHAMIR: They were really developed as, if you like, nice to haves, you know, not things, certainly not in the context that your average member of the public would expect.
JANE COWAN: By the time he’d come up with his model, Ron Shamir believes he’d already been blackballed by an organization that doesn’t brook criticism, even internally. A series of critical evaluations he’d done had not been well-received. In 2003, Ron Shamir says he was told to tone down his criticism of a project assessing structural fire risk. RON SHAMIR: I was told that – hat the bureaucracy and particularly the minister had already planned a launch of this, of the first few products to come out of this methodology and that things the train had got out of the station, and it was gonna be pretty difficult to stop it now. And that was a clear signal to me that CFA, the other agencies and the bureaucracy generally were not interested in critical feedback, irrespective of how justifiable or important it was. JANE COWAN: Eventually, Ron Shamir’s relationship with management degenerated to the point where he lodged a complaint that was met with counter-complaints and snowballed into a dispute that ended with Ron Shamir’s sacking and a finding in the Industrial Relations Commission in the CFA’s favour.
The fire prediction model was thrown out with the first analyst. JOURNALIST: Was anything done to your knowledge at the IECC to predict the course of the Kilmore East fire? I believe I was not aware on the day. I believe that some fire behaviour people in the IECC made a map that showed some progression of that fire. I did not see it on the day. JANE COWAN: Ask questions about fire prediction and you open a can of worms. DAVID PACKHAM: The fire research situation in Australia is absolutely appalling.