Australia — The Rural Fire Service is being investigated by a coroner over claims it covered up suspicions that a fatal bushfire was started by one of its own volunteers.
Motorist Ronald Gillett died and 13 homes at Abernethy in the Hunter Valley were destroyed in one of the state’s worst bushfires which a previous inquest found was deliberately lit.
Yesterday as he reopened the inquest on the basis of fresh evidence, deputy state coroner Carl Milovanovich said he would be investigating whether there had been a “conspiracy of silence”.
He said the primary focus of the new inquest was whether there had been a “cover up” over the cause of the blaze in October 2002.
One of the fresh witnesses to be called is Brendan Hokin, a member of the local Cessnock Bushfire Brigade who had been charged two days before the fire with deliberately lighting a fire that threatened Pokolbin.
He then went to fight the fire.
Hokin, then 24, pleaded guilty to arson and was jailed for 12 months with a non-parole period of four months.
He has denied any involvement in the Abernerthy blaze, which was the result of two separate fires.
But Mr Milovanovich was not told about Hokin when he held the first inquest in 2004.
After that inquest, RFS investigator Ken Hepplewhite told ICAC that he had told someone he “thought there may have been a cover-up (about the fatal fire) but that he was not part of it.”
Bushfire volunteers who were on the two Cessnock fire trucks on a training exercise when the fire started have also been interviewed by police – some for the first time – and will also be called to give evidence.
Police had taken statements from 34 new witnesses, Sergeant Julie Tillott, assisting the coroner, told Westmead Coroners’ Court.
She said the inquest had been reopened following allegations made by a local resident, Garry Price, who almost lost his home in the fire, and a reinvestigation by police.
Businessman Mr Gillett, 55, was trapped in his car and killed when the flames swept across the road through Aberdare State Forest after he was turned back at a roadblock.
Outside court yesterday, his son Barclay Gillett said he he hoped the new inquest would “get to the bottom of what happened”.
Mr Price flagged that he would be asking for Mr Hepplewhite to be called as a witness.
The inquest was adjourned to October 13 in Newcastle.