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Inquests and Inquiries into the 2019/2020 NSW Bushfire Season

The NSW State Coroner, Magistrate Teresa O’Sullivan, recently handed down findings and recommendations from the Inquests and Inquiries into the 2019/2020 NSW Bushfire Season. That bushfire season was one of the most catastrophic on record, involving: 11,770 fire incidents across New South Wales over 240 consecutive days of burning; the making of three state-wide State of Emergency declarations by the Premier; and fires which burnt over 5.52 million hectares of land (7% of the State’s total land area and 39% of New South Wales State Forests). Tragically twenty-five people died in connection with the fires, including seven firefighters. The NSW fires also destroyed 2,476 homes and over 5,500 buildings (including regional community centres and schools). The national financial impact of the fires was estimated at over $10 billion. Further, as the State Coroner noted in her report: “These fires also had a devastating impact upon First Nations peoples, the traditional custodians of the land. Many nations, tribes and clans live in the fire-affected areas.”

Greg O’Mahoney appeared for Coulson Aviation, the world’s largest aerial firefighting operator, which operates across North America, South America, Europe and the South-West Pacific, and manages the only aerial firefighting fleet globally that comprises both fixed-wing and Type 1 rotary-wing aircraft.

The inquests and inquiries, which commenced on 25 August 2021 and ran until 10 August 2023, included inquests into the deaths of Rick DeMorgan Jr, Paul Hudson and Ian McBeth arising from the fatal crash of aircraft B134 during aerial firefighting operations in the Snowy Mountains on 23 January 2020. Amongst the witnesses called were the Deputy Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, aviation radio operators, airbase managers, air safety investigators, incident controllers, officers from the State Air Desk as well as pilots and personnel from Coulson Aviation with thousands of hours of aerial firefighting flight time.

The State Coroner found that the performance of aircraft B134 was affected by a “sudden and significant wind event”, as submitted by Coulson, causing the aircraft to aerodynamically stall and fatally collide with the terrain. The State Coroner made several recommendations directed towards the NSW Rural Fire Service and aimed at improving the safety of aerial firefighting procedures and practices, including enhancing the information and communication provided to aircraft pilots and crew. The State Coroner ultimately found that Coulson’s safety management systems and procedures in place at the time did not cause or contribute to the crash.

Greg was instructed by Mark Mackrell, Olga Kubyk and Andrew Dunn of Norton White. Adam Casseldon SC and Matthew Harker were Counsel Assisting. Stephen Free SC, Nicholas Newton and Sarah Woodland appeared for the NSW Rural Fire Service.

Greg O’Mahoney and Allan Flick are also appearing for Coulson Aviation in proceedings concerning the same aircraft crash which are currently before the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

The Findings and Recommendations of the State Coroner can be found at:

Articles addressing the fatal crash of aircraft B134 on 23 January 2023 include:

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-03-20/snowy-mountains-black-summer-bushfire-air-tanker-crash-inquest/102118548

https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/other-aircraft-grounded-before-american-crewed-plane-crashed-during-nsw-bushfires-inquest-told-20230320-p5ctkw.html

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/aug/29/nsw-rural-fire-service-rfs-criticised-after-investigation-into-2020-air-tanker-crash-killed-three-us-firefighters

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/24/us/australia-firefighters-ian-mcbeth-paul-hudson-rick-demorgan.html

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