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Royal Commission Update 9 December

Wednesday, 09 December 2009

The Royal Commission convened today.

This summary is prepared for general information only. It should not be relied on as a complete record of the proceedings of the Royal Commission. A full transcript of the proceedings is obtainable at www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au

Royal Commission log

Key points:

The royal commission today began looking at the Bunyip Ridge fire, which began in Bunyip State Park on February 4 and broke out of the park to the south on February 7. The fire caused the loss of 24 houses, 60 farm buildings, six caravans and much stock and stock feed. A total of 26,200 hectares was burnt.

Counsel assisting, Rachel Doyle, said a DSE situation report said the DSE had no firefighters or trucks at the fire at the time it jumped a control line. DSE incident controller David Nugent said the document was wrong. He had 64 firefighters there, who were not withdrawn at any time.

DSE night shift incident controller Chris Hardman believed he was an accredited Level 2 incident controller, but had not known on February 7 that his accreditation expired in 2005. He was always being asked to be an incident controller and did not know such qualifications expired. He has since been re-accredited and is working to become a Level 3 controller.

When the wind changed around 3am on February 7, crews up the mountain in Bunyip State Park were ordered to evacuate. The fire then crossed the control line. Doyle said if they had not left, they could have fought the fire with a beneficial effect. Hardman rejected that, saying it would have been completely inappropriate for him to approve them going back in, with the weather forecast he had.

Time: 9.17am

Witness: David Nugent

Organisation/Title: Parks Victoria fire & emergency services director, Woori Yallock

David Nugent was the daytime incident controller for the Bunyip Ridge fire in its early days. At the commission this morning, he first spoke to the Star Tool presentation of the fire, which shows via a series of maps, photos and graphics how the fire began and was fought.

Bunyip State Park has a variety of vegetation and terrain, including swampy peat heaths (which are hard to get heavy firefighting vehicles to), steep areas with dry eucalypt forests and wet areas of mountain ash.

In normal years, peat is damp but not this time. It can be difficult to identify hot spots in peat.

The terms “containment line” and “control line” are used interchangeably – they are a mineral earth line dug around a fire with bulldozers or by hand to remove fuel and stop the progress of a fire.

To counsel assisting, Rachel Doyle, he was not aware of a bulldozer sliding off a semi-trailer (which she said a lay witness saw happen).

Presenting the Star Tool, Nugent said Phase One of the fire began with lightning across the Dandenongs and Bunyip State Park on February 2. Nine small fires were quickly contained and put out. On February 3, two new fires were reported and contained.

On the afternoon of February 4, three new fires were reported, possibly caused by the February 2 lightning, though no clear cause was established. Two were quickly contained but the Bunyip Ridge fire continued.

It was reported to the DSE at 3pm and, as it was in a state park, came under the control of the DSE.

The Incident Control Centre for the fire was initially established at Belgrave but was shifted to Pakenham on February 5.

The first crews arrived 40 minutes after it was reported. They found flames 45m high in a paper bark and tea tree swamp. The crews sought to establish control with a mineral earth control line. Two bulldozers were there by 9pm. An Aircrane was also used.

At 6am on February 5, the fire was declared contained within the line boundaries, with 32 hectares affected.

Phase Two was February 5 and 6.

On February 5, firefighters continued to black it out. They did “burn-outs” of unburnt areas inside the control line. At 1.45pm, the fire reignited in the control line on the north-east side and jumped the control line into the eucalypt forest up the hill towards the Bunyip Ridge Track.

It was 160m from the burn-out so was not caused by that.

Two Aircranes were used to fight it… it was difficult to fight in the steep terrain. By the end of February 5, 140 hectares was affected.

Crews set about creating a new control line.

On February 6, there were significant challenges controlling the fire in the deteriorating weather. They sought to establish control lines in anticipation of the weather expected on February 7.  The planning included protecting communities and community meetings.

Phase Three began at the start of the night shift on February 6. Firefighters worked through the night, with the fire behaviour erratic, so suppression was difficult. It was more like daytime conditions; with the 3am temperature 31 degrees, the humidity 32 per cent and wind gusting to 15kmh.

Around 3am, a south-west trough approached, so at 4am, crews were moved from the edge of the fire for their safety. With the wind change, the fire crossed the control lines to the east.

At daylight, air support was brought back to delay the spread as long as possible.

Phase Four began with the February 7 run of the fire to the south-east. By noon, the temperature was in the low 40s, the wind gusting 60kmh and the forest fire danger index at 100.

The fire began spreading quickly to the south-east with spotting up to 4km ahead. At 1pm, it reached the public-private land border. At 1.35pm, the Princes Highway and Gippsland rail line were closed and at 1.45pm, control of the fire handed to the CFA.

It was now burning in open farmland, very quickly.

By mid-afternoon it was spotting 16kms ahead towards Drouin, and by 5pm 25kms ahead.

Phase Five came with the south-west wind change at 6pm. The eastern flank became the head fire and moved to the north-east.

The predicted mapping done at the ICC and at the IECC was valuable in planning for the spread of the fire and accurate.

Cross-examined by Rachel Doyle, though the fire began as Level 2, it was always planned and resourced to Level 3, which it became on February 7.

Pakenham was a better ICC than Belgrave because it was bigger, newer and had more equipment.

There were difficulties on February 7 with CFA communications systems but not the DSE ones.

On Thursday and Friday, the CFA was focused on planning for township protection, while the DSE teams concentrated on containing the fire.

The Incident Management Team had a safety advisor whose advice was sought on a number of occasions. Doyle said it was one of only two IMTs with a safety advisor. Why did it have one, apart from its being compulsory? Because firefighter safety was paramount. This was a complex fire in difficult terrain.

Incident Shift Plans were done for each shift. Doyle turned to the ISP for the February 5 day shift, prepared by Chris Hardman the evening incident controller. The strategy was to black out as much as possible going into February 7.

Nugent said they had 64 firefighters, with 17 tankers, three dozers and aircraft.

Doyle said the situation reports for the day were odd. It gave DSE resources as nil at 2.02pm, the time the fire jumped the control line.

Nugent said it was wrong. The 64 firefighters were not withdrawn at any time.

The aim of the burn-out was to ensure there were not significant areas of unburnt vegetation that could later ignite and cross the control line.

Not all the crews were at the burn-out. Others at the north-east side when the fire crossed the line.

Doyle produced slides from a DSE training presentation from the Bunyip fire. It had a slide that said the fire escape when nobody was there. Nugent said at least three crews with slip-on units were there.

As soon as the fire escaped, they requested additional machines and aircraft. The first water bomber arrived within minutes.

Commissioner Pascoe asked if it would have made a difference to have one of the big jets proposed for this season. Nugent said bigger is not always better. The terrain was difficult and the aircraft they had were effective.

Community meetings were held in Labertouche, Drouin and other places. He attended one Labertouche meeting. Flyers and maps were given to people there to give them an understanding of what the fire was doing. People were advised to activate their fire plans.

Doyle said one lay witness left his meeting thinking things, another was very worried.

About 1.45pm on February 7, after the fire came out of the park, he handed control to the CFA’s Mr Smith and continued as deputy incident controller.

Time: 12.17pm

Witness: Chris Hardman

Organisation/Title: Parks Victoria, operations manager bays & maritime division

Chris Hardman was the DSE night time incident controller in the early days of the Bunyip fire.

At February this year, he believed he was a Level 2 incident controller, but has since found that expired in 2005. He has completed reaccreditation and is nearing accreditation for Level 3.

He had not checked Fireweb to see his accreditation. He achieved Level 2 in 2000 and did not realise it had a time frame. He was continually asked to be an incident controller so believed he was accredited.

When the wind changed around 3am on February 7, crews were ordered out of the way. The fire crossed the control line. The forecast weather was significant so he rejected a request from the fire ground at 6.30am for crews to go back in. It was not safe. Strong winds were expected at 9am.

He agreed with Doyle this meant there was no direct attack on the fire for about four hours.

Because of this, he rang state duty officer Dennis Ward to activate the air desk to get aircraft as close to first light as possible.

He had to go with the information he had.

Doyle said if crews had not left the fire ground, they could have fought the fire with a beneficial effect. Hardman – it would have been completely inappropriate for him to approve them going back in, with the forecast he had.

Doyle said it may never have left the park if they kept fighting it. Hardman – firefighter safety is the most important. He wanted everyone to go home safely. The weather was such that the fire would have come out anyway and when it did it was not where the spotover was.

Time: 2pm

Witness: Michelle Buntine

Organisation/Title: Lay witness, Labertouche

Ms Buntine has lived in Forest Rd Labertouche for five years with her partner Brett and daughter Savannah (2). They had no formal fire plan but had a pump and a hose that would reach their dam. They kept the property relatively clear.

She became aware of a fire on Monday when the storms came through as she saw fire trucks. There was information on the DSE and CFA websites on Tuesday.

She was aware from the TV news that the weather would be bad on Saturday.

She attended a meeting on Friday February 6 at 1pm at the Labertouche hall. The hall was stifling hot with no ventilation. Savannah cried through it. A lot of people were there.

She went to another at 7.30pm.

The CFA spoke at the lunchtime meeting and the DSE and CFA at the 7.30pm meeting.

After the lunch time meeting, she intended to leave, with pressure from her mothers and others, but not till the next morning.

There was a map with an impact zone which went well past her property.

At 3pm, the police knocked on her door to ask who lived there and who would stay or go. She was frantically getting things ready by then. She could not recall if they suggested she might leave.

She went to the evening meeting because she did not catch all said at the 1pm one because of being outside with Savannah. There were many more people.

She felt there was more urgency in what the CFA and DSE people were saying. People were more serious than at the afternoon meeting. The DSE incident controller [Mr Nugent] addressed the meeting.

She realised then that the situation was really serious and she needed to leave now.

Brett stayed, though. During Saturday, she phoned a friend in the CFA who said Brett should get out now. Later he did leave, for the same Labertouche hall. It was the only safe place to go. He was driving through flames.

CFA crew were there with a truck, terrified and vomiting. They looked exhausted. Brett could see fear in their eyes. Two looked like they were vomiting.

Brett joined her on Saturday night. They managed to get back home on Sunday and found the house destroyed.

Had she stayed the night on Friday night, she would have been able to leave in a more orderly way next day.

Since then, they have returned and converted a surviving shed into a home. Being homeless was a really hard situation. After the fires, she visited a very dark place and was not a good mother for a few weeks. She lost her milk and could not feed Savannah, who was still up three to four times a night now.

People needed to build more defendable homes. She did not want a brick home, but now does.

Livermore for the State of Victoria asked her about her statement. Para 72 said why wasn’t the small Monday fire stopped. When she made that, was she told the fire that escaped did not start until Wednesday?

She had heard all kinds of things about when the fire started, she replied. She had heard they could have been deliberately lit on Wednesday, that three or four started by lightning on Monday. Nobody told her it started on Wednesday when she was making her statement for solicitors for the commission. Livermore said 14 fires started and all were put out bar the one on Wednesday that got out.

She knew a bulldozer fell off a truck on Wednesday. She saw it go past their house. Brett followed it and saw it.  Livermore said on Monday 2 a truck with a dozer went over and was towed out by a bulldozer. She was mistaken about the date. She rejected that.

Whether it occurred on Monday or Wednesday, Brett saw it on Wednesday, and a DSE firefighter told him then that the fire was under control and all would be well.

Time: 2.45pm

Witness: Ivan Smith

Organisation/Title: CFA incident controller Bunyip fire

Ivan Smith has been both a career and volunteer firefighter over 42 years. He had been involved in the Upper Beaconsfield and Cockatoo fires on Ash Wednesday. Black Saturday was far different. At Ash Wednesday, there was no AIIMS or fire management system. The incident controller back then did many more jobs.

Bart Cummings said on radio Cummings had earned his experience, not bought it. Smith had earned his experience too.

Mr Owens (CFA regional operations) called on Thursday 5 to build an operational contingency plan for Saturday which he did.

He prepared a map of the area and how it was likely to be threatened, with “trigger points” for taking certain actions. Trigger points were his innovation, not something in the rule book. They were designed to get resources to critical areas in time for the critical work. It came in a flash of inspiration. A trigger line was a good idea.

It had such assets as caravan park, community halls. The caravan park was a strike team priority as so many people lived there.  It had water supplies such as dams for quick identification.

At Trigger Point 2, the CFA would become the control agency and its tankers and pumpers would roll out to Longwarry and Drouin.

Built into the plan was the point each community would receive its messages.  It had fallback plans in case plan 1 failed. There were separate plans for the various towns and sectors.

The plan contained the resources available for the day.

He was based at the Pakenham ICC on Friday and met at least two-hourly with Mr Nugent. They worked separately from the DSE people but in consultation with them.

He was well aware of Russell Rees requiring a Hot Start for February 7.

He went for the people with the experience and track record for his IMT, rather than ticking boxes. He put together his A Team.

They were notified at home at 4am that the fire was over its control lines and had better get to the ICC. They were all there between 5am and 5.30am.

He got a briefing from Mr Hardman on arrival. The fire had escaped after some kind of weather event in the forest in the hills. One of his team, Steve Hicks, lived in the hills and had the same weather event.

Doyle – did he consider sending the DSE team back in the forest? No, the call had been made in the name of safety to pull them out and he supported that.

He sent Steve Hicks to look at the conditions near the freeway as someone had said there was still long grass which seemed unlikely. He needed 100 per cent information. Hicks rang and said they could have a crack at the fire along the M1 freeway so they decided to try to make a stand.

The formal handover for him to become incident controller was 1.45pm.

The DSE were really suited to the forest environment. The CFA was all aimed at the open country.

An MFB fire crew went to a spot fire at Drouin. He was a firefighter not a politician. They were moved fairly quickly on to the fire front but they needed work suited to their particular appliances. Their uniforms were also thicker so they suffered from heat retention. They worked very hard and did a fantastic job defending the Drouin West sawmill and primary school.

Aircraft really came into their own with those large spot fires. Both Aircranes were at Drouin. They would never put a fire out on their own but they quelled them for the ground crews.

At 4.30pm, one Aircrane was pulled off and sent to Fern Tree Gully. An operational analysis of need was to let that aircraft go, as it was an area of greater need.   On the way it bombed a fire at Harkaway which was in a very at-risk zone and would have become a much bigger fire had the Aircrane not been flying over en route to Fern Tree Gully.

He asked the police to evacuate nursing homes in Bunyip and Neerim to a pre-planned alternate point at Koo Wee Rup.

He did not recall a request from his ICC to play the SEWS, but he was surprised it was not used. At the stage the fire came out, he thought it was the time SEWS would be used to make the maximum impact on the community. He did not request it but the request might have come from within the information unit.

Part of the IT system did crash on February 7. It hampered them only in respect of warnings, which needed to be printed out for the incident controller to sign. It built a 17 to 20 minute delay in to the signal going up and down the line.

At 4.30pm, they got information the change would come at 6pm not 7pm. He decided to send a Red Flag warning because it was a big fire ground and crews needed warning that it would be a severe change.

He was at cross purposes there with Dave Nugent [who did not send one] but the DSE crews would have got the warning down the line.

He did not recall lifting traffic management points for journalists or politicians on February 7. Some work was done on that on February 8.

To Commissioner Teague, he had only seen at most five fires anything like this, it was the worst, and ___ awful. But it did not seem to need any special name. It was a big wildfire.

He thought the fire would be out of the forest by 10.30am, but the air support held it up for two hours, which was important for the lesser fatigue of the fire crews, who were getting pretty tired by the wind change.

Time: 4.16pm

Witness: Robert Patrick

Organisation/Title: DSE

Robert Patrick is a forest and fire officer with fire management responsibilities, including suppression and fuel reduction.

Fire in peat could remain undetected for long periods, then flare up. That was not his experience in the Bunyip fire.

He started on the night shift on February 5 fighting the fire as a task force leader, after working in the office all night. After 7.5 hours normal duty you are paid overtime. He did not have to work in the office next day, then worked the night again.

They constructed containment lines in the night but were not able to finish them, for various reasons.

The next night, he had the incident shift plan for the shift. The task was to construct further containment lines and black out burning material. He was also given a spot fire weather forecast from 5.30pm, which indicated they had little chance of containing the fire and heightened his fears for firefighter safety.

He was worried the change could arrive earlier or later than the predicted 4am, so he developed a plan to evacuate from the line when the deterioration happened.

It was the forecast from hell that occupied his mind from the beginning of his shift.

He had 58 firefighters and six bulldozers.

The crews were ordered out as the conditions deteriorated – the weather changed first. It took one hour from 3am for all to get down to the designated safe point.

It seemed certain the fire ground was to become an extremely unsafe place. It was also impossible to contain it that night.

Doyle said the wind fell to 2kmh by 4am so the wind event was of short duration.

He discussed with Craig (operations manager) going back in to make an assessment of resuming work. Craig allowed three of them to go in. He was uncertain whether to instruct the crews to resume work, or stay outside.

He was very comfortable with his decision to move them out given the weather and what was forecast.  At 6.25am, he was told not to return under any circumstances.

To Commissioner McLeod, he said as a group, they did very well on both their shifts at night in difficult terrain. Everyone stuck to their tasks very well. They constructed significant lengths of containment line given the terrain.

For the state, Livermore asked about the dozer and float coming off the road. It was on Monday night on Tea Tree Rd near Tea Tree Track at 17.15 hours and a second bulldozer was brought in.

 The commission rose at 4.50pm and will resume at 9am.

 

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