A high-level government advisory body has warned of "persistent shortcomings" in the territory's bushfire preparedness and criticised reviews into last year's fires it says glossed over the concerns of firefighters.
A repeated failure to meet annual hazard reduction targets was among the issues highlighted in the ACT Bushfire Council's previously unpublished report, which The Canberra Times has obtained under freedom of information.
The council raised concern about the lack of transparency around the response to last season's two major fires, and suggested the reviews which had been published overlooked criticisms aired by frustrated volunteer firefighters.
Its report also expressed alarm about the bushfire threat to Denman Prospect, referencing internal modelling which had shown multiple homes in the Molonglo Valley suburb would be destroyed under catastrophic conditions.
The annual bushfire preparedness report for the 2020-21 season was handed to Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman in November, but has yet to be made public.
Mr Gentleman's office has insisted it was up to the advisory body to release the report, although the council's own terms of reference state that it cannot publish anything without the minister's approval.
In any case, Mr Gentleman said he was "supportive" of the report's release and was in the process of finalising the government's response.
In response to questions about the report, Mr Gentleman said he was confident Canberra was well prepared for bushfires, having received extensive briefings on the actions ACT authorities are taking to reduce fire risks.
Emergency Services Agency commissioner Georgeina Whelan and Rural Fire Service chief officer Rohan Scott have echoed Mr Gentleman's sense of confidence, saying the events of last summer had prepared the ACT well for future incidents.
The ACT Bushfire Council, which is chaired by Dr Sarah Ryan and includes members with expertise across firefighting, land management, urban planning among other fields, presents an annual report to the minister on how prepared the territory is for the upcoming season.
Amid predictions climate change would bring more extreme and unusual bushfire behaviour and make Canberra "very vulnerable" to bushfires for the west and north-west, the council called for action on what it considered to be long-standing gaps in the ACT's bushfire preparedness.
"Council is concerned about persistent shortcomings in bushfire preparedness in the ACT that seem to be intractable but which must be better dealt with in order to be assured that Canberra can be adequately protected from growing bushfire threats," the report said.
Among its concerns was Park and Conservation's failure to meet its hazard reduction targets, which had been variously blamed on weather conditions, slow environmental approvals and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. "Inflexible" budgets and staff shortages made it hard to catch up on missed burns the following year.
The council said it was concerned that a "persistent inability" to achieve the targets would mean the "degree of protection [from fires] ... may be in decline".
It was particularly worried about ongoing delays to planned burns in Namadgi National Park and the build up of fuels on Blackies Hill, near Denman Prospect, and in the northern end of the Bullen Range.
The report also expressed concern about the ACT government's failure to produce a "transparent account and reviews" of firefighting activities during last summer's two major emergencies: the Beard fire near Canberra Airport and the massive Orroral Valley blaze, which scorched 80 per cent of Namadgi National Park.
While acknowledging the ACT government had commissioned internal and external reviews of the summer fire season, the council observed that neither report included "substantive documentation of suppression activities, nor reviewed the effectiveness of current fire management strategies".
It pointed to Ron McLeod's inquiry into 2003 fires as an example of a "good review", as it recommended the government urgently hire an independent expert to review the firefighting response to last summer's major incidents.
The council's report also suggested the government-commissioned external review of the fire season, which generally praised the ACT 's response, had glossed over concerns aired by rural fire service volunteers and staff.
Leaked feedback to the review included explosive claims of a "blame and shame" culture inside the Emergency Services Agency and the inappropriate behaviour of commissioner Whelan.
There was no reference to that feedback in the final report.
The council said the fact the consultant's report was "relatively silent on these matters" might further erode volunteer morale, which appeared to have "deteriorated significantly" over the course of the previous fire season.
In his response to The Canberra Times' questions, Mr Gentleman pointed out the council's report had noted the government had accepted all of its recommendations in the previous year, and was satisfied that "appropriate seasonable recommendations" were in place for this summer.
He said council members had been provided thorough briefings from the Emergency Services Agency and been offered tours of its incident control rooms and on firegrounds to "ensure transparency and demonstrate the breadth of preparedness activities being undertaken".
The council's chair, Dr Ryan, was unable to provide comment when contacted by The Canberra Times.