Black Saturday bushfire victims died defending their houses

 Black Saturday bushfire victims died defending their houses

9 September 2009

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Australia — Many of the 113 people who died inside houses on Black Saturday were actively defending their properties and not passively sheltering from bush fires, the royal commission investigating the disaster was told today.
Opening the first of a series of special hearings on the 173 deaths on Black Saturday, counsel assisting Peter Rozen said this was in marked contrast to deaths in previous Australian bush fires, where less than 10 per cent of victims died inside houses and most of those were passively sheltering.

Mr Rozen said this sudden change in historic trends for deaths in Australian bush fires could have implications for Victoria’s contentious “stay or go” policy, which encouraged people to stay and defend their homes.

Research on 552 civilian bushfire deaths in Australia during the past 100 years showed just 8.3 per cent occurred inside homes.

“Of those, most are said to have occurred while the victims were passively sheltering or were engaged in what are described as very mere and unsuccessful attempts to defend their properties,” Mr Rozen said.

“Only one person is said to have died while defending a defendable shelter.”

But evidence collected by police investigating Black Saturday deaths inside homes “will reveal that many of those 113 people had made extensive preparations to defend their homes and were actively doing so until shortly before their deaths”.

Further analysis of these deaths was needed before “definitive conclusions can be drawn about the relative risks of staying to defend and leaving”, Mr Rozen said.

“It is intended the commission’s final report will examine the stay or go policy in light of that evidence,” he said.

Evidence to be presented on each of the 173 Black Saturday deaths would include the location of each body, the cause of death, the deceased’s awareness of the stay or go policy, activities and decisions taken shortly before death, descriptions of fires and other factors such as particular vulnerabilities of victims.

Mr Rozen said the royal commission’s investigations of the deaths would not be a substitute for later coronial inquests.

The royal commission will not call relatives as witnesses because of the distress it may cause, although relatives would be free to provide evidence if they wished, question other witnesses or make statements to the royal commissioners.

Many of the photographs taken by police investigators of those who died could prove “deeply distressing” to relatives and so would be digitally altered before being used during hearings, Mr Rozen said. The original photographs would be available only to the commissioners and lawyers involved in the inquiry.

Detective Inspector Paul Hollowood, the head of the Phoenix Task Force probing the Black Saturday fires and deaths, said the massive operation at one point took up half of Victoria Police’s investigative capacity, with 450 officers involved.

The royal commission later went into a closed session for 50 minutes to take evidence about seven people who died sheltering in backyard bunkers at three locations on February 7.

The hearing is continuing.

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