Phone networks failed in bushfire towns

  Phone networks failed in bushfire towns

28 March 2009

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Australia — Telephone breakdowns are emerging as a key issue in fire-ravaged communities, with the Busfires Royal Commission hearing once again that fixed and mobile networks failed on Black Saturday.

About 120 people attended two community consultations held yesterday in Wandong, 70 kilometres north of Melbourne.

The concerns raised at the hearings, which were closed to the media, echoed those aired at previous meetings in Kinglake and Myrtleford.

Clonbinane resident Mark Healy said it was only thanks to a tip-off from a friend working for the Department of Sustainability and Environment that he was able to properly prepare for the approaching fire and save his house.

“The landline went out and we get no mobiles,” he said. “I’m here to get on the communications bandwagon.”

Four people died in the fires around Wandong and 147 properties were lost.

The royal commission had initially overlooked the town but added it to the list of 12 other fire-affected communities it would visit after protests from Mitchell Shire Mayor Bill Melbourne.

Last week, residents of Myrtleford and its surrounds, who were the first to be visited by the royal commission, reported a breakdown in telecommunications on February 7. The issue of patchy communication was also raised at the Kinglake consultations.

Lorraine and Doug Flower have no mobile phone or television reception and little radio reception at their Reedy Creek property. Mr Flower is an experienced CFA volunteer and his wife said that when their phone lines were cut as the fire moved towards them on February 7 they had only their senses to guide them.

“Our nose and our eyes, that’s all we had,” Mrs Flower said. “We don’t even get CFA radio, so we are totally without communications.”

After the meeting, Cr Mitchell said the council would make sure some kind of communication would be provided in areas such as Reedy Creek.

He said residents had also raised concerns about the number of dead-end roads in the area which, if blocked by fire, could turn into “death traps” for residents trying to flee.

Forest management was on the minds of others, with Robert and Carmel Douglas saying the undergrowth left to accumulate in the forest around their Heathcote Junction home caused an even greater fire risk.

Their house survived the inferno but their 80-hectare bush property was burnt.

“The fire might have been caused by a spark or a firebug or a loose wire, but the inferno was caused by negligence,” Mr Douglas said. “Years and years of negligence.”

The next consultation is in St Andrews tomorrow.

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