A defence chief has apologised over a massive bushfire in NSW that destroyed homes after being sparked during a military training exercise west of Sydney.
The State Mine bushfire continued to rage at an emergency level between Lithgow and the Blue Mountains today, more than a week after it began during explosives training on army land.
Acting Chief of Defence, Air Marshall Mark Binskin (pictured above), says a small fire that started during a routine training exercise at Marrangaroo on October 16 was responsible for the blaze, which has burnt out nearly 50,000 hectares of land.
“I do apologise, because it has been identified that this fire was the start of this mine fire,” he told reporters at Rural Fire Service headquarters.
“We’ll ascertain the facts as 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.”
A NSW Police investigation was still underway, he said.
Air Marshall Binskin said the decision to go ahead with the training exercise was made on a day of light winds and 23 degree-temperatures.
“The fire (danger) was on the lower end of the scale and there was not a fire ban,” he said.
Defence personnel acted quickly after an explosion started a small fire after midday on October 16 but were hampered by the live ordnance around them.
RFS crews arrived within half an hour, Air Marshall Binskin said.
“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,” he told reporters.
“This was not deliberately starting a fire, this was an accident as part of a training activity on a day there wasn’t a fire ban.”
He said Defence was “not shying from our responsibilities” but stopped short of offering compensation to those affected by the bushfire.
Air Marshall Binskin said the force’s in-house investigation into this incident could prompt changes to training procedures around Australia.
Earlier, fire chiefs said it was too early to tell if negligence was a factor in the fire, the cause of which was identified by the Rural Fire Service.
Defence has said it is conducting its own investigation.
Deputy Fire Commissioner Rob Rogers declined to speculate on whether Defence protocols needed to change.
He said it wasn’t known exactly what went wrong.
“When fires start, where there’s human intervention, there’s carelessness and then there’s just simply accidents happening,” he told reporters.
“I think it would be prejudging to suggest there was any sort of negligence.”
Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said whatever Defence did to start the fire, it was clearly unintentional and “no conspiracy” was involved.
He defended his agency’s immediate response to the blaze, which destroyed three homes last week.
“The fire occurred on a live firing range … you can’t send firefighters or fire trucks into a live firing range,” he said.
“Nor can you put aircraft above or into close proximity to assist in water bombing.
“Firefighters were working in and around the army range with a view to try to deal with that fire the day before it ran.”
Mr Fitzsimmons said conditions last Wednesday didn’t necessitate total fire bans and “activities on live firing ranges are a matter of routine”.
He said he didn’t know how many hours the fire burned before the RFS was able to work on it.
Blue Mountains mayor Mark Greenhill says the fires have done significant damage to his community, and is demanding the army explain why the explosives exercise went ahead on a dry and windy day.
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