Kinglake fire ‘impossible to suppress’

Kinglake fire ‘impossible to suppress’

30 May 2009

published by

Australia —

The deadly fire that burnt across the Kinglake ranges on Black Saturday was of such intensity that it would have been “impossible to suppress”, even 10 minutes after it began, the royal commission into the bushfires has heard.

The evidence emerged as Californian fire chiefs said they had abandoned a version of Victoria’s “stay or go” policy following the devastation of the February 7 fires, which killed 173 people.

Melbourne University fire behaviour expert Dr Kevin Tolhurst told the commission yesterday that it would only have been worthwhile for firefighters to attack the head of the Kilmore East fire within 10 minutes of it starting on Black Saturday.

Crews were called to the fire at 11.49pm, but he said that by 2pm, all that could have been done — and which firefighters on February 7 did do — was to work on the fire’s eastern edge before a late-afternoon wind change came through.

The commission heard this week that 113 people died in houses on Black Saturday.

This contradicts historical research, which has shown that people were most likely to have died in a bushfire during late evacuation.

But Dr Tolhurst told the commission that he still supported Victoria’s stay-or-go policy and believed that community fire guard groups, formed by residents in bushfire-prone areas, were “world’s-best practice”.

“Community empowerment is the most important way we can deal with the situation, rather than having a community that is reliant totally on organisations,” he said.

The commission has previously heard that Californian authorities were awaiting the findings of the royal commission before deciding on whether to adopt elements of stay or go more broadly.

California has a policy of mass evacuation but some counties had been supporters of a “stay and defend” approach, under which homeowners can refuse to evacuate.

But with what is expected to be a horror fire season in California, fire chiefs of some of its most populous counties — Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura — announced this week they had scrapped stay and defend in favour of a “ready, set, go!” campaign.

“Santa Barbara instituted stay and defend in their county, but quickly changed their thoughts due to what went on down in Australia,” said a spokesman for LA County Fire Department, Captain Michael Brown.

Grocon has cleared two-thirds of properties earmarked for clean-up after the bushfires and is on track to finish them two months before the September deadline. Nearly 3000 properties have been registered and latest figures show that 1988 have been completed, with the 2000th property expected to be completed by the end of yesterday.

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