Lack of warning key to bushfire tragedy

Lack of warning key to bushfire tragedy

8 April 2009

published by

Australia — Of all the towns devastated by the Victorian bushfires, the people of Marysville believed they were untouchable, even fireproof.

“There was a perception in the community that Marysville can’t burn,” says Michael O’Loughlin, who lost his weekend retreat in the February 7 firestorm.

“If you talked to the locals, prior to the fire they would have told you that the geography, the way the fires come, the prevailing winds and all the rest of it, that Marysville can’t burn.

“The proof was it didn’t burn in ’39 (Black Friday) and it didn’t burn on Ash Wednesday in 1983.”

It’s as though Marysville townsfolk could afford to be nonchalant about the fire threat, an assertion local resident Jill Sanguinetti agrees with.

“I was in Marysville at 4.30 and the sky was full of smoke … nobody was taking the slightest bit of notice. I could see the smoke tumbling down Mount Gordon and everyone was carrying on as normal.”

The scenario might sound like one used to set the tone of a Hollywood disaster movie, impending doom about to be visited on an unassuming, picturesque town, followed by a carefully orchestrated plot resulting in triumph over adversity.

But the reality of the Marysville experience is anything but triumphant.

The personal accounts of what happened in the picturesque town an hour or so out of Melbourne had one of many airings during submissions to the bushfire royal commission’s community consultations this week.

Like the hearings in Kinglake and elsewhere in preceding weeks, many believe a lack of adequate warning systems and a breakdown in communications across all levels ultimately cost Marysville dearly.

Thirty-four people were killed in Marysville and virtually every building and property was destroyed when the bushfires tore up the Buxton Valley on the afternoon of Black Saturday.

All agree that lives could have been saved had there been even half an hour’s warning.

Anger is directed at what’s perceived to be the fault and failure of government and authorities to do enough to manage the bushfire threat, including inadequate fuel reduction programs that left forests overloaded with tinder-dry undergrowth as well as appalling communications systems.

“As I understand, the DSE (Department of Sustainability and Environment) was given the message at 3.30pm that the fire was coming,” says Sanguinetti, who fought to save her home at Granton, a hamlet just outside Marysville.

“We had the radio on and were watching websites and we didn’t hear anything.

“Had there been, even by four o’clock, an immediate broadcast on every radio and TV station, ‘This is an emergency, you’ve got to move’, I think that would have made a big difference, and of course it didn’t happen.”

Another account that illustrates the communications confusion is that of town historian Mary Kenealy.

She and her husband Reg, who lost their home, were saved when their son, returning to town after driving other people out to nearby Buxton, saw flames racing down the mountain.

“I don’t know whether the DSE had (the information). All I know is when we went up to the history centre to pack up the trailer, a representative of the CFA (Country Fire Authority) went past, stopped and said ‘Relax, the fire is still at Murrindindi’,” Kenealy recalls.

“I said, ‘No it’s not, it’s at Granton’, our son had been able to tell us that, and he said ‘No, that’s not right’ and that was a CFA person. He said he’d just got off the phone from the CFA office.”

Prior to that, Kenealy adds, she and her husband kept a keen eye on the CFA website for updates and alerts but none were posted.

“I had been on the CFA website when we first came home from the history centre at three o’clock and I read on the website ‘there was no fire near Marysville’ … it was not even mentioned on the website.

“I thought ‘Right, I’m still not happy’ because of the smoke that was starting to arrive and I tried to ring the police but they never answered…”

As the royal commission began wrapping up its community consultation process with the final hearings in Arthurs Creek, residents there said the biggest problem was state authorities, who had the opportunity before the bushfire season to mitigate the fire threat.

But they didn’t, and the locals blame the environmental lobby.

Two people died in Arthurs Creek but it was the losses in neighbouring Strathewen, 27 out of a population of 200, one of the worst-hit townships along with Marysville, that vividly illustrated the scale of the tragedy.

As Arthurs Creek resident Roger Hurrey points out, the fire that devastated this bucolic corner of the state began some 50km away on the far side of the Hume Freeway, supposedly a natural fire break.

“Everybody … said they will stop the fire at the Hume Freeway,” recalls Hurrey, tears forming in his eyes as he remembers friends who perished.

“Then they say it jumped the Hume Freeway, it didn’t bloody jump the Hume Freeway, it burnt down the Hume Freeway because the fuel on the Hume caused it to spread to the east of the Hume.

“To me that’s an absolute disgrace.”

Smiths Gully resident Sandra Kerkvliet, whose home was just 2km from the fire front on February 7, says while it is a lifestyle choice to live in the bush, it is still possible to strike a balance between keeping native vegetation and making homes safe.

“I love where I live, but we need to be able to do more to make ourselves safer,” she says.

“My biggest concern is that current native vegetation legislation doesn’t allow us to have wider bushfire breaks.

“We don’t want to wholesale clear, we’re not developers, we’re not part of a lobby group, we’re just average people who just want to make themselves feel safer.

“Wholesale felling … is not our thing. Our thing is to try and get some good common sense based on what is now known about fires.”

As the bushfires royal commission moves towards the next phase, formal hearings begin later this month in Melbourne, commissioner Bernard Teague already has plenty of material gleaned from the informal community hearings to shape his inquiry.

The February 7 disaster was the worst of its kind in Victoria and while many would like to believe that history never repeats, the fact remains that the state has experienced extensive bushfires before: most notably in 1939, 1983, 2003 and 2006.

While the royal commission promises to leave no stone unturned, back in Marysville, Michael O’Loughlin already doubts whether any of its expected recommendations will have much effect.

“They (authorities) won’t make sufficiently right decisions, time will dull it, there’ll be so many people that they’ll make the same mistakes,” he says, shaking his head.

“Like 1939, ’83 and ’09, in 25 years’ time they’ll be standing around here saying ‘We didn’t learn from 2009’. That’s what I unfortunately believe.”

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