Three years after national park bushfire property owners seeking compo

Stephen Lill owner of a stud farm lost many of his cattle and one of his prized bulls Red Valentino. Photo: Jacky Ghossein The Wambelong fire burns near the Siding Springs Observatory. Photo: Rural Fire Service

Stephen Lill: “We are no further on than we were three years ago”. Photo: Jacky Ghossein

Delays to Black Sunday fire inquest blamed on poor resourcesResponse to ‘Black Sunday’ fires one of the worst we’ve seen: firefighters Senior RFS officers ignored advice on back burning

Stephen Lill stood on his property and watched the menacing advance of the bushfire which started in the Warrumbungle National Park.

On what became known as “Black Sunday”, the fire destroyed 53 properties, 56,000 hectares of national park and private lands and killed 200 prime cattle on Mr Lill’s stud farm. A few months later he put down supreme champion bull Red Valentino, who was found badly burnt and lying in a dried out dyke.

But three years on this month since what the coroner described as an “unprecedented catastrophic wildfire” none of the 53 Coonabarabran property owners has received any compensation under public liability from the government. Mr Lill, who says he can no longer service his debts is quietly seeking a Chinese buyer.

The coroner said it wasn’t his function to make findings or enter judgment concerning questions of such matters as duty of care, breach of that duty or liability for damages. Such issues were for other courts, he said. He did, however, state: “I find it surprising to receive a submission from the NPWS and the RFS that ‘it is only with the benefit of hindsight that it can be said that [an Emergency Warning] should have been sent … Notwithstanding the history of the park, they had lost control of the fire and had no prospect of getting it under control in the conditions’.” He said their dogged refusal to make any greater concessions is disappointing given the distress and loss suffered.

The property owners say the government was responsible for containing the fire in the national park and are seeking compensation by the end of February or they say they will take the matter “to the next level”. They say if it goes to court the cost to the taxpayer could be more than $200 million, some 10 times what they are seeking.

“We are no further on than we were three years ago,” Mr Lill said. “We are just sick and tired of the procrastination in these mealymouthed platitudinal letters we get from ministers, their parliamentary secretaries and heads of department.

“They need to legally compensate those they have harmed through their culpable negligence.They have an (insurance) policy. They’ve paid the premiums now authorise them to pay it out.

“Every month I have got to sell 12 cows to give to the bank just to pay the interest on the loans we have had to take to build fences and buy hay for the six months after we got burnt out. The same people that were in charge of the national park three years ago are still there and they have learnt no lessons. They didn’t fulfll their obligations or follow the written procedures.”

Of the sale of his property he said: “It is being promoted in China as we speak. The land will heal itself. It’s the people that are scarred permanently.”

Procter Morris, Secretary of the Coonabarabran Property Owners Alliance said the fire had had differing effects on individuals.

“There have been family breakdowns, people have moved away, people have chosen not to rebuild, there are people suffering from depression,” he said.

“People have told me that because of what they went through with the Wambelong fire that seeing the recent fires in Victoria and Western Australia has caused them to break into tears. Some people still cannot even talk about their experience with the Wambelong fire with me without them becoming emotional.”

Robert Brown who chaired the Upper House inquiry said the lengths the people who lost property were having to go to maintain a standard of living was disgraceful.

“The state government has not yet responded to my Upper House inquiry nor have they responded to the coroner’s report. My recommendation to these farmers is if the government doesn’t start talking to them shortly I would be looking at legal avenues.

“The findings of my inquiry clearly indicated that the government needs to look to immediate compensation. We are talking about fires in January 2013. I believe the problem is not so much compensating the farmers at Coonabarabran but in setting a precedent for future fires.”

Minister for Emergency Services David Elliott said he acknowledged the significant distress and loss suffered by the community during the Coonabarabran bushfire.

“More than $56 million was provided in financial assistance following bushfires across NSW in January 2013,” he said. “This included the repair of essential public assets, direct financial assistance to eligible households for the repair or replacement of essential items and, in some cases, the house itself.

“The compensation claim made by the Coonabarabran Property Owners Alliance is being taken seriously by Government. Given the important and sensitive nature of these matters, the government has sought the advice of Senior Counsel and is currently awaiting the outcome of that advice.”

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