CFA officer unqualified to lead Black Saturday bushfire fight

CFA officer unqualified to lead Black Saturday bushfire fight

26 May 2009

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Australia — The officer in charge of fighting a bushfire that killed 121 people on Black Saturday was not qualified to carry out such a senior role, the royal commission investigating the disaster was told today.

Others in the incident control centre were also not qualified for their roles.

Kilmore Country Fire Authority captain Gregory Murphy said he was qualified to run a level two incident control centre, but was not told on February 7 that a fire which started at Kilmore East at 11.50am had been raised to a more serious level three incident.

“I had no prior knowledge that I would be utilized as a level three incident controller,” he told the commission.

Mr Murphy said warnings to communities about the fire, which eventually devastated townships such as Kinglake, Strathewen and Flowerdale, were initially issued by a regional command centre.

He said he was not shown the warnings and did not know how frequently they were being issued or what they said.

The Kilmore Incident Control Centre began issuing threat warnings after a CFA information officer arrived at 3.30pm.

He said he signed off on an urgent warning at 4.10 pm on February 7 identifying eight communities under threat, including Kinglake. He was not aware the message had not been issued immediately until after details about the delay were raised during royal commission hearings.

The message was issued after it became known a wind change was due at 6pm.

“We looked at the path and realised it was going to go deep before it turned and when it turned there were going to be some townships in the path and in trouble,” Mr Murphy said.

Mr Murphy said he was not shown an infra-red aerial scan of the Kilmore fire taken at 12.33pm, which showed its size and location.

Stewart Kreltszheim, a level three CFA incident controller who took over from Mr Murphy at 4.30pm, said his main priority was trying to find out exactly where the Kilmore wildfire was late on Black Saturday.

A log from the CFA control centre read to the royal commission recorded at 8pm that “the fire is running so quickly we can’t keep up” and “not sure where it is”.

Mr Kreltscheim said that as incident controller he was ultimately responsible for issuing public warnings, he left that task up to others because “I was dealing with a number of other isssues”.

When he signed off on an urgent threat message at 5.20pm warning Kinglake and Flowerdale could be impacted by the fire, he hoped it was based on the best available information at the time.

He assumed the message would go out and would be posted on the CFA website, he said.

Mr Kreltscheim, who is a fulltime CFA staff officer, said he was not aware that another divisional CFA control centre was unable to communicate with the Kilmore control centre late on Black Saturday.

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