ACT News


End in sight after decade-long battle over fire

Another chapter in the history of the 2003 bushfires may close on Monday with the possibility the last remaining legal action arising from the disaster could be finalised.

Meanwhile, Canberra prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the January 18 firestorm which killed four people, injured hundreds of others and destroyed almost 500 homes.

Chief Justice Terence Higgins is expected to hand down his judgment in the ACT Supreme Court in the cases involving Brindabella landowner Wayne West, insurance giant QBE and the state of NSW.

Mr West and QBE were running different cases but were heard together. Any of the parties could appeal the decision, a move the would keep the legal action running more than a decade after the fires.

Mr West and his wife, Lesley, sought damages from NSW as a result of property losses they suffered in the January 2003 bushfires.

The Wests maintained officers of the NSW Rural Fire Service and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service were negligent by choosing not to directly attack the McIntyre's Hut fire after it was ignited by lightning in the Brindabella National Park on January 8.


The fire ultimately burnt out the Wests' property on the Goodradigbee River less than two kilometres from the likely ignition point on January 18.

Lawyers for NSW argued the fire service owed no individual duty of care to Mr West and that firefighters should not have to worry about whether their decisions lead to litigation.

Mr West has been fighting to have his story heard from just days after the firestorm, continuing to battle in the courts since 2006, a hard slog that has already been all the way to the High Court as NSW unsuccessfully sought to have his case struck out.

''We've been to the High Court on two occasions, we've been in the Supreme Court and now we wait for the judgment,'' he said.

Mr West would not comment on whether he would appeal a decision he found unfavourable.

''I just hope the decision ends the case and we can go forward with our lives. We have paid a reasonably heavy toll,'' he said.

During the court case, it was contended that Mr West contacted the NSW Rural Fire Service incident controller in Queanbeyan on January 9 expressing concern about the fire and asking for help. However, none was received.

The court heard Mr West was told by the incident controller on January 11 that he didn't ''see the big picture''.

He had also claimed the fire had been allowed to burn there because it was ''shit country''.

Lawyers for NSW contended there were other fires burning throughout the state and the Wests' claim was based on the premise that the protection of their interests, their property, should have taken priority over the residents of Canberra or the residents of NSW.

Mr West said compensation had not been the motivating factor in his decade-long battle.

''The motivation was I always said the fire should have been put out and the statements made publicly both by the National Park and the Rural Fire Service, in my belief, weren't factual evidence and that's the reason I went forward,'' he said.

''I believe that the fire could have been put out in the Brindabella mountains and therefore the havoc and the devastation that was caused in the suburbs of Canberra, and the loss of four lives, wouldn't have occurred.'