Black Saturday bushfires overwhelmed Victorian radio system

Black Saturday bushfires overwhelmed Victorian radio system

9 April 2009

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Australia — Firefighters from the devastated township of Strathewen, where 27 out of 200 residents died on Black Saturday, could not find out from Country Fire Authority controllers the location or extent of the approaching firefront.

At one point, a CFA tanker from Strathewen and Arthurs Creek was ordered by radio directly into the path of the front.

“We just didn’t know what was coming or how bad it was,” CFA member Ken Neilson said during a Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission community consultation with Strathewen survivors yesterday. Mr Neilson said his tanker repeatedly asked CFA controllers via radio about the location of the approaching firefront on February 7 and how big it was.

“We kept asking for information, but couldn’t find out what was going on,” he said.

The CFA radio system appeared to be overwhelmed on the day and the mobile telephone network in the area also “collapsed”, Mr Neilson said.

It was not until the tanker was ordered into the path of the advancing firestorm at Humevale, to the northwest of Strathewen, that they realised what they were facing. The crew then tried to retreat to Strathewen to help defend the community, but were blocked by burning and fallen trees across a narrow access road into the town. Mr Neilson said the royal commission needed to investigate the patchwork of narrow dirt roads in the area that became easily blocked on Black Saturday.

“Roadsides need to be cleared and the roads need to be at least wide enough for two vehicles to pass,” he said.

Lorraine Tully, who helped save more than a dozen Strathewen residents on Black Saturday, said there needed to be a better system of communicating warnings to people. She said she had a radio scanner because her husband was in the CFA and had been monitoring the fire. When she saw smoke and realised it was headed towards Strathewen, she alerted as many people as possible to come to her house, which had been designated a fire refuge because it was considered the least likely in the township to be destroyed in a bushfire.

The house survived. “There were 16 people from five different families there,” Ms Tully said. “Everyone who came to the house survived. There were others I rang who didn’t come. They didn’t survive.”

The Strathewen meeting was the final of a series of consultations the royal commission has held in a dozen communities over the past three weeks. The commission, headed by judge Bernie Teague, is expected to begin hearing evidence in May

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