THE Black Tuesday bushfire coronial inquest still is in its infancy but already it appears some harsh lessons need to be learnt from the disaster on Eyre Peninsula, which killed nine people.
The Country Fire Service so far has been subjected to a barrage of criticism not only from farmers and those affected by the fire but also from its own firefighters.
Those in control of the fire, however, will have their right of reply when the inquest resumes on January 16. The sore point from those blaming CFS incident managers for allowing the fire to get out of control, is their perceived lack of action to establish sufficient fire breaks on Monday, January 10.
In the following days, the fires claimed the nine lives, including four children. More than 100 people were injured. The worst Australian fire since Ash Wednesday in 1983 destroyed 93 homes, burned more than 77,000ha of land and killed 46,000 stock.
It has been well documented the CFS declared the 1800ha fire at Wangary “contained” on the Monday night. Most witnesses so far, believe incident managers did not take enough heed of the hot temperatures and north winds forecast early next day, which was expected to leave the fire susceptible to breakouts. History shows the fire raged out of control about 9.45am on theTuesday.
All nine victims were killed within a few hours of the fire breaking out, with Trent Murnane and Neil Richardson believed to be the first to die, the inquest heard. It also heard of the lucky escapes of firefighters and farmers trapped in the heart of the fire when it was at its most ferocious.
One witness, who has been the most scathing of incident controllers has been Coulta farmer and CFS brigade captain, Peter Doudle. He told the inquest that if the fire had been better handled on the Monday night “it could have stopped the biggest disaster we’ve ever had”.
The operation of the Government Radio Network on Black Tuesday also has been put under the spotlight with multiple witnesses questioning its effectiveness.
Those battling the blaze on the Monday and Tuesday have told of the confusion inside CFS appliances in trying to handle three separate radios – the GRN, the UHF, and the VHF.
Damien Puckridge, captain of the Edillilie CFS brigade, told how he turned down the GRN, in preference to listening to the UHF and VHF systems.
The confusion surrounding the systems was the most likely reason why incident commanders did not know where 13 of their CFS trucks were when the fire raged out of control.
By the time the inquest finishes, probably not until April at least, 15 months would have passed since Black Tuesday. The current bushfire season could have ended.
The inquest has sat for 19 days, hearing tens of hours of evidence from 13 witnesses. Authorities have warned about significant undergrowth and fuel loads in the Lower Eyre Peninsula region.
Already in this bushfire season, several blazes have broken out across the state but, thankfully, there has been no loss of life.
It is believed this inquest is costing the state upwards of $400,000 every week when it convenes. One woman who has sat through almost every minute of the inquest so far is Natalie Borlase, who lost her children, Star and Jack, and her mother, Judith Griffith, in the fire. As with the many people affected by the fire, and even those not, she wants answers.