‘No time’ to stop Black Saturday

KINGLAKE — The first warning came as an email the day before Black Saturday to all fire captains: extreme fire risk in Victoria and “crews should expect first attack to be ineffective.”

But a series of mishaps and computer errors delayed sending warnings to some communities once the fires were spotted, the commission investigating the disaster has heard.

The organizational mix-ups even left one Country Fire Authority (CFA) captain resorting to using Google Maps to plot the course of a raging fire that would sweep through Kinglake, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has been told.

Fire experts had compiled detailed maps early in the day that accurately predicted the path of the blaze, but they were never seen by the right people or used in issuing timely warnings to soon-to-be devastated communities.

Thirty-eight residents died north of Melbourne in the Kinglake fire — part of the 173 Black Saturday fatalities and 2000 destroyed homes in Australia’s most lethal bushfire.

Feb. 7, 2009 had started like any other hot summer day.

Kinglake CFA captain Paul Hendrie arrived at his fire station on main street around 9 am, enjoying a cup of coffee as he began monitoring radio traffic for signs of smoke in his area.

He used the email warning from the region’s operations manager as the basis for what he knew could turn into a really ugly day.

Mr Hendrie and his volunteer firefighters listened to their scanner and constantly checked the CFA website for updates.

The town’s two tanker trucks were filled and ready to go.

They waited. They listened.

A phone call came from the nearby town of St. Andrews asking for one of Kinglake’s tankers, then another call came asking for help with a fire as well. Both trucks were sent out.

Mr Hendrie wasn’t getting any information from the CFA website so he pulled up Google Maps and tracked on his own how an expected wind change late in the day could blow the fire right into Kinglake.

He heard over the scanner that a fire had jumped the road.

With no tankers left for the town, he called police for a roadblock and decided to leave the fire station to warn those in transit.

“The worst place to be in a bushfire is on the road,” he told the commission.

He remembers speeding down the road in a brigade car and seeing fire in the hills and several spot fires emerging in the leaves.

He turned back at least 15 cars as embers rained down around them.

When he arrived back in Kinglake at a roundabout, people were in a panic.

“Where should we go? What should we do?” they asked.

He told them to stay away from Whittlesea and St. Andrews.

“In a position like that, the best advice I could give was to stay in the centre of town,” he said. All roads leading out of the town could have been in the path of the fire, he said.

Some fleeing the Black Saturday bushfire sought shelter at Kinglake Primary School by breaking in to the building, he said, but they didn’t know how to use the fire fighting equipment that had been left there as a decommissioned fire refuge centre.

The building was only damaged slightly in the blaze.

Mr Hendrie said hundreds had heeded his advice by gathering in the centre of town as the fire approached late in the day.

Around 4 pm the sky went black.

His memory of what happened next has faded.

There was smoke. He remembers closing the garage door at the fire station to stop the smoke from coming inside.

His pager was buzzing off his hip with so many messages that he couldn’t respond to any calls.

Mobile phones stopped working. Communication failures started piling up within his own team.

The brigade radios had trouble working on the frequency assigned to the area so some crews switched to a different frequency.

A CFA tanker had put up a mayday call that day but the frequency change meant Mr Hendrie knew nothing of it.

“I didn’t even know they were there, let alone in trouble,” he said, saying it could have become a “catastrophe”. Unlike past bushfires Mr Hendrie has witnessed in 35 years in the CFA, this one came with “no time” to issue proper warnings, he said.

In a 2006 blaze, there was ample time to go door-to-door to warn residents as well as put up a map at the fire station plotting the course of nearby fires. That didn’t happen during Black Saturday.

Neil Clelland, senior council for the State, asked Mr Hendrie if it would have made a difference to have more tankers in the area.

“Even if we have ten trucks I don’t think we could have done much to stop the fire,” he replied.

It was unlike any fire he had ever experienced.

Prior to Black Saturday he also thought it was feasible to defend a home in bushfire conditions, he said. But the widespread destruction — propelled by high temperatures (46 C) and a strong wind speed — has changed his mind.

The inquiry has heard claims that a family of four died in Mr Hendrie’s area after attending a community fire guard meeting and then changing their minds to stay and defend their home instead of fleeing when a fire occurs.

Mr Hendrie said he attended a meeting by that group in December but he had never given out advice on if specific properties were defensible. That isn’t the role of the CFA, he said, but someone should be hired to give out individual property risk assessments.

The Bushfire Royal Commission was formed after Black Saturday to examine what led to the disaster and how everyone responded to the emergency.

Impacted residents have attended community meetings to give their first-hand accounts of the bushfire. A series of daily hearings have followed to present evidence and interview fire experts and staff working that day.

The hearings are continuing each weekday with an interim report expected by August and a final report by July 31, 2010.

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