Australia — A volunteer fire crew and a family stayed behind in Dunalley during January’s devastating bushfires and saved more than 40 properties, the ABC has learned.
This was despite an order for firefighters to pull back to the Dunalley Hotel during the height of the bushfire emergency.
The pub was the main evacuation centre in the small southern Tasmanian town and more than 100 people sheltered there.
The bushfire destroyed 63 homes in Dunalley, along with key buildings like the primary school, the police station and a sawmill.
The fire service says most crews were ordered back to protect their own lives and the lives of the people who were seeking shelter.
But while most fire crews were following the order, the local volunteer brigade stayed in town, risking their lives to save about 40 shops and houses.
Their chief, Brad Westcott, became trapped inside a house during the ordeal.
“The fire just took off. I looked up and there’s a blaze, there’s flames rolling in the ceiling, there’s horrible black smoke,” he said.
“It wasn’t very good. It was like, ‘well I can’t find a door so I’ll just go out the window’ and so I just jumped out a window.”
He went on to save other houses in that street with another volunteer firefighter from the Dunalley Brigade, Andrew Daly.
“I didn’t feel like I was going to die, but when we were going around to Boomer Bay we actually got a flash over where a fireball come over the top of us, which boiled the water in the back of the truck and melted our suction hose too,” he said.
Dunalley local told people the priority, not property
Ike Kelly’s sawmill was already on fire when he fled to the pub along with more than 100 other locals.
Almost all the fire crews were ordered back to the pub to protect lives, but Mr Kelly can not understand why they did not also save nearby properties.
“A house right opposite the car park at the hotel was on fire and I asked the people in one of the big fire trucks, I said, ‘Why don’t you put it out?’ And they said, ‘We’re not here to put houses out; we’re here to save lives’.”
“And I said, ‘Well how the hell do you know there’s no people in that house? ‘Your hoses will reach over there’ and they just nodded at me. They didn’t bother.”
A family of local concreters also stayed in town fighting the blaze. Gerald Spaulding put water tanks on the back of his truck and used that to put out the fires.
“We sort of saved most of our street, or we hope to think that we saved most of our street. No houses burnt in our street,” he said.
‘They perhaps could have saved more houses’
Mr Kelly believes more properties could have been saved if the fire crews at the pub joined the local brigade and concreters.
“They perhaps could have saved more houses than there was if they’d have had instructions to use them tankers. That’s as simple as I can put it.”
Tasmania Fire Service’s chief fire officer, Mike Brown, has defended the action of his crews at the pub, saying saving lives is always their priority in catastrophic conditions.
“We needed to ensure that we had an absolute focus on protecting that building and the people that were in that building,” he said.
“Had we have had crews go back and respond in almost a candle-moth syndrome to other buildings as they caught on fire, we would have lost control over that situation, certainly under the conditions we had.”
The Tasmanian bushfires inquiry was concerned about how the fire was fought in the Dunalley township.
It recommended if more information was needed about the firefighting that the Department of Justice should have an independent investigation.
The State Government has approved that recommendation in principle but has not ordered an investigation.