Fire inquiry that failed to see the good
REGRETS: A decade later Vivien Thomson says the inquiry into the 2003 firestorm became a blame game rather than a learning experience. Photo: Colleen Petch C
A former senior ACT firefighter says 10 years after the 2003 firestorm one of her main feelings is that the coronial inquiry into the disaster should have focused more on the ''good things'' done by the firefighters.
Vivien Thomson, then Vivien Raffaele, was a ranger with the ACT Parks and Conservation Service, working on the fire ground as part of her job. She was captain of the ACT Parks Brigade, president of the Fire Controllers Group and a member of the Tidbinbilla Volunteer Bushfire Brigade.
Ms Thomson said she went into the inquiry with an open view but believed it descended into a witch-hunt because there was so much trauma surrounding the disaster.
''My interview with the police went for seven hours and even the policeman said, 'We don't even treat our criminals like that'. That's how intense it was,'' she said.
Ms Thomson, who was a witness at the coronial inquiry, said she had hoped it would focus on learning from the firestorm rather than attributing blame for the disaster.
''We live in a bush setting so fires are inevitable and when we build cities and environments in the path of the fire, it's inevitable that things are going to happen,'' she said.
''We can prepare as best we can, but when you end up with so much trauma, the human instinct is to find someone to blame. I firmly believe I don't think there was anyone to blame because it was the culmination of things that occurred.''
Ms Thomson said the inquiry failed to acknowledge adequately the efforts of the firefighters. ''No one ever went to work that day to do a bad job,'' she said.
''We went in there willingly and we went in there to do the best job that we could for the community, for our brigades, for ourselves and our families. I cannot think of one person who went in to do the wrong thing.
''So I find it sad that we spent all that time and energy and at the end of the day, it went down a different tack. I find it really disappointing they didn't look at any of the good things, they chose to look only at the bad things.''
Ms Thomson has chosen to speak out on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the January 18 firestorm, saying she had written to coroner Maria Doogan at the time of the inquiry ''imploring'' her to recognise the good that was done.
''Because if we don't, we're not going to have any firefighters,'' she said. ''If we continually look at the negatives, why would anyone want to do the job? I know [the firestorm] did a lot of damage, but there were also things that were saved, there were also things that were done well. There needs to be a balance.''
Ms Thomson left the ACT in 2006, moving to rural NSW partly to escape the aftermath of the fires. She also wanted to spend more time with her children who were only eight, five and four at the time of the fires. And she didn't want to be ''living in the past all the time'', dominated by the fires.
''For me, I had to break the cycle because I could see me still living it to this day,'' she said.
She retrained to provide a coaching service in leadership and emergency management. And she has written a self-published book called Ashes of the Firefighters, about firefighters and trauma.
The book is less a clinical view of trauma and more about sharing the firefighters' traumatic stories.
''If people haven't been through it, they can see what other people have been through, and if they have been through it, they can say, 'Hey, it's not just me','' she said.
''It's about building resilience and helping people understand.''