The chair of Australia’s bushfire royal commission has extended his sympathy to the families of 33 people who died during Australia’s disastrous “black summer” and says the harrowing season will linger in the national psyche.
Retired Air Chief Marshall Mark Binskin formally opened the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements in an online hearing from Canberra on Thursday.
In addition to the loss of life, more than 10 million hectares burnt across Australia and 3000 homes and 7000 outbuildings were destroyed during the 2019/20 bushfire season.
Millions of native plants and animals perished, along with 80,000 head of livestock.
Commissioner Binskin said the bushfires had deeply affected the lives of many Australians and “the harrowing experiences of this bushfire season will long linger in our national psyche”.
“The pervasive smoke haunting our towns and cities, the red skies turning black, the thunderous raw and thick smoke that accompanied the wall of flames and the utter devastation.”
The commission will examine the preparedness for, response to, and recovery from disasters including the recent bushfires, as well as floods, cyclones and earthquakes.
It will aim to hand down its findings before the start of the next bushfire season.
It will also examine legal issues around commonwealth involvement in responding to national emergencies and its interaction with the states and territories, as well as the involvement of the Australian Defence Forces.
Coronavirus takes hearings online
The commission has already conducted 17 community forums in bushfire-ravaged areas in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia.
But the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing restrictions cut short any further forums for the time being, and all hearings will now be conducted online.
Commissioner Binskin said he and fellow commissioners, Annabelle Bennett SC and Professor Andrew Macintosh, had already heard distressing stories from survivors.
He acknowledged that for some “reliving the bushfire experience will open unseen wounds”.
“Your knowledge and insight are critical to understanding what happened and applying the lessons learnt so that we can do things better in the future,” he said.
“As commissioners we will listen and we learn from you.”
The commission will adjourn until May, when the first phase of online hearings will take place.