Inquest begins into fatal WA bushfire

Inquest begins into fatal WA bushfire

5 October 2009

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Australia — Deficiencies in Western Australia’s fire risk management procedures led to the deaths of three truck drivers near Coolgardie in 2007, an inquest has been told.

The three drivers, Lewis Bedford, 60, Trevor Murley, 53, and Robert Taylor, 46, were killed when their trucks were trapped by massive flames in the Boorabbin National Park on the Great Eastern Highway.

Driving east from Coolgardie in a convoy of up to 15 trucks that had been told it was safe to travel down the road, they turned around when they ran into the worst of the blaze west of the goldfields town, but failed to escape the flames.

The bodies of Mr Bedford and Mr Taylor were found in the prime mover of a burnt-out road train, where they died from smoke inhalation and burns.

The body of Mr Murley was found nearby in the cabin of another burnt-out prime mover.

The convoy had been allowed to travel down the road despite weather bureau warnings of an expected significant wind change that would turn a fierce bushfire towards it.

After more than 18 months of investigations and finger-pointing as to the agencies or officers responsible for the blunder, a three-and-a-half week inquest into the three men’s deaths began on Monday in the WA Coroner’s Court.

The inquest opened amid controversy as lawyer John Hammond, representing Mr Bedford’s daughter Estelle Bedford, dismissed himself pending the outcome of negotiations with the WA attorney-general’s department.

Mr Hammond told the inquest Ms Bedford had failed to gain a legal assistance payment that would have enabled her to be represented at the hearing.

The investigating police officer, Arson Squad Detective Sergeant Chris De Bruin, told Coroner Alastair Hope that communications, organisational and human failures were among eight key factors responsible for the tragedy.

He said that central to the problems had been the lack of any information-sharing between the Incident Managing Team (IMT) that was dealing with the fire and Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) officers who were “on the ground” in Kalgoorlie.

Critical weather forecasts had been missed by members of both the IMT and the DEC, he said.

There was no legislation, strategy or procedures in place as to the appropriate times to open or close roads in such situations, the court heard.

Guidelines similar to those adopted in Victoria had since been adopted by the Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA), the DEC and police to rectify the “ad hoc” situation, Det Sgt De Bruin said.

Full lists of emergency numbers, including mobile phones, had not been available to key personnel, while key officers had failed to properly undertake the police force’s role as operating manager of the emergency.

He said greater assistance had been required from the DEC, while there had been a general failure to prepare for upgradings in fire warnings on highways.

Inquiries and reviews had led to the introduction of measures to rectify many of the departmental and communications failings, he said.

The inquest continues

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