Report on Occ Fire released

More than three years after a fire that claimed the life of local firefighter Daniel Howard, a coroner’s report into the incident has been handed down.

Deputy State Coroner Magistrate Harriet Grahame released her report on Friday into the causes of Mr Howard’s death and the fire at the New Occidental Hotel on August 17, 2014.

She concluded that “Daniel Howard died while bravely fighting a fire” after suffering catastrophic injuries when a wall collapsed on him.

Magistrate Grahame found the fire to be an accident caused by “conducted heat or a spark” that came from the chimney.

Fire & Rescue NSW Station 256 Cobar Captain Brad Lennon said the Cobar crew is relieved the Coronial Inquest is now over and hopes it will help provide some closure to the very tragic incident.

“I am also grateful that the Coroner recognised the brave efforts of all the other personnel on the ground that day, and their dedication to fighting the fire under very trying circumstances,” Mr Lennon said.

“Daniel was an integral part of our team, and was highly respected both as a firefighter and as a mate.

“His commitment to protecting the Cobar community will never be forgotten.”

Magistrate Grahame said, in her view, the Cobar firefighters were faced with a dangerous situation and fought as bravely as they could.

Magistrate Grahame said evidence showed the fire is likely to have originated in or around the chimney flue in the ceiling cavity which was “consistent with witness observations that the flames were first seen in the air-conditioning vents and then in the roof area”.

“However I also accept that the collapse of the building means that it is impossible to determine the exact cause of the fire with one hundred per cent accuracy. I am well satisfied that the fire was accidental and that no suspicious circumstances exist.”

Magistrate Grahame’s report also highlighted an inadequacy of the training currently provided to retained fire fighters.

“The nature of this particular fire meant that the main area of focus was whether the fire fighters who attended the Occidental Hotel were properly trained in relation to the risk of structural collapse,” she said in her report.

The court heard that a lack of awareness about structural collapse was likely to be more common in rural fire fighters, who might not get as much exposure to complex fires as city based fire fighters.

“Following an analysis of the events at the Occidental Hotel, there was clear recognition on the part of FRNSW that the organisation needed to grapple with improving the training for fire fighters in relation to structural collapse. There is still a great deal of work to do in this regard”.

Magistrate Graham said since her son’s death, Genevieve Howard had fought so that no wrongful criticism was made of her son.

“These findings make it clear that none is warranted,” she said in the Coroner’s report.

Mrs Howard had also pushed for training improvements and more support for retained firefighters. Magistrate Grahame said she believed Mrs Howard’s “voice has been heard by FRNSW”.

She also praised the incident controller, Deputy Captain Tony Walkinshaw, saying he had performed the role “with great care and skill, given the difficult circumstances that confronted him and his general lack of experience” and “did his best to ensure the safety of his men”.

The court heard evidence that some of Cobar Shire Council’s fire hydrants were not working properly at the time of the fire.

Magistrate Graham said she was pleased to note that when council’s new general manager Peter Vlatko took over, he accepted responsibility to drive change

and was responsive to the failings as they emerged in the evidence.