Australia — The lack of an early warning system and poor communication was crucial to the horrific loss of life in the tiny community of Strathewen.
The Bushfire Royal Commission heard today that the fire arrived and overwhelmed the scattered community near Kinglake in minutes with house after house exploding in flames.
“It was like turning on a light. It was that quick,” said David Andrews, who had a miraculous escape with his wife Lynnette.
Strathewen lost 27 people, the biggest loss per head of population in the Black Saturday inferno.
Resident after resident told the commission’s final commuinity consultation day that an early warning system and accurate information of the progress of bushfires had to be implemented if the catastrophe was not to be repeated.
“I was on the internet all day on the CFA website and Strathewen was never mentioned,” Mrs Andrews said.
“We are in little valley and there’s only one way in and one way out and there’s no way I would have jeopardised our lives if I knew what was coming.
“I would have been out of there. With the intensity we didn’t have a chance.”
She and her husband lay on the floor of their home covered in wet towels before they were able to escape to their dam and then crawl into a culvert.
“We got to the dam but we were worried about falling limbs. The trees were just snapping like sticks,” Mr Andrews said.
“We got into a culvert that runs under a roadway at the entrance of our roadway. We blocked one end with a towel to stop the smoke getting in. We were in there for hours.”
He said that once they realised there was no escape it was simply a fight for survival.
“We had the the right clothing, we had sprinkler systems installed, fire hoses at each end of the house. We had wheelbarrows full of water, mops, towels,” Mr Andrews said.
“We couldn’t have done any more and we lost everything.”
Mrs Andrews said she ran to her neighbours at 4.55pm on February 7 because she had seen flames approaching and said to them “take care, we’ll see you soon”.
“By the time I got home the neighbours house was on fire. And they died,” said Mrs Andrews.
Strathewen has poor mobile phone communication and when the power went out the community was completely isolated.
Ron Bailey, 74, said he and 12 neighbouring properties had a “fire guard” group to prepare for bushfires and a phone tree early warning system.
Eight people in the group perished in the blaze.’
“Many people died and they were doing exactly what they should have been doing, staying and defending their house,” Mr Bailey said.
“It was impossible to do that because it was a fire that was outside anybody’s experience.”
He said the lack of warning was crucial and those that were given should have been more specific.
“Instead of saying ‘activate your fire plan’ it should be ‘the fire is leaving Wandong at a terrific rate and is heading for Strathewen, Kinglake and St Andrews, so get out’,” he said.
“Instead of pussyfooting around. I was listening to the radio and it was miles away and then all of a sudden my property was under attack from embers.”