A mother’s anguish at family’s ‘false confidence’

A LITTLE bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, Joan Davey believes. She thinks information provided by the CFA to her son and his wife gave them false confidence that they could defend what turned out to be an indefensible home.
When Mrs Davey phoned her daughter-in-law Natasha in Kinglake on Black Saturday, “I could hear (granddaughter) Jorja singing the Wiggles song and Natasha said, ‘It is 50 degrees; Jorja doesn’t like the heat. We could get caught in a traffic jam. We could drive into a fire. We will stay here until we get information.”‘
Mrs Davey blames the community fireguard meetings the family had attended for the tragedy that followed.
“Prior to the activity with the CFA, our children were of a mind to leave, and we will lament forever that our children interacted with the CFA fireguard group.”
When Robert and Natasha Davey moved to Bald Spur Road in Kinglake eight years ago, Joan Davey was worried about fires, she told the Bushfires Royal Commission yesterday.
Her son reassured her that by the time any fire arrived, “‘We will be long gone’ … I took that to mean they didn’t intend to try and fight for the house, that their lives were important.”
In 2006, when the Daveys were all together on a trip to Perth and fires were burning in Kinglake, he told her that he did not want to return and fight them: the pets were in kennels, the house was insured, and they could do with new bathrooms.
But in recent years, the Daveys prepared to stay and defend their house. Wine merchant Robert, 36, bought tanks, pumps and hoses.
On Black Saturday, Natasha, 33, was inside the house watching the CFA website while daughters Jorja, 3, and Alexis, eight months, watched the Wiggles. Outside, he wet down the house and land, even though they believed the fire was a long way away.
Becoming increasingly anxious when she could not raise her son on the phone on the Saturday night, Mrs Davey kept calling the bushfire information line and the Red Cross line from 8.30pm until noon the next day. “Not one of our calls were answered,” she said.
“I actually got a voice, a computerised voice message that my call was important and that I should hang on, so I held that line – simply because it was something – for almost two hours and the call was never answered.”
Mrs Davey and her husband decided to drive to Kinglake to search for themselves. They were stopped at the Whittlesea roadblock. “We registered the children as missing and I wrote on notes, sticker notes … ‘Davey family, please contact us’ and ‘Rob, where are you?”‘
It was at the Whittlesea relief centre that she heard of the deaths of former TV newsman Brian Naylor and his wife at their home on Bald Spur Road.
“The gentleman beside me said, ‘Oh my God, if he’s gone, they will all be dead up there!’
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said to me that … Mr Naylor’s property was eminently prepared … to fight anything and if he hadn’t been able to fight the fire with his equipment, he didn’t believe that anybody else would have been able to.”
It was not until 1.30am the following Monday that her fears were confirmed: all four members of her family were found dead in the bathroom.
Mrs Davey told the commission she did not know what was said at the CFA fireguard meetings, but Robert and Natasha seemed to have changed their minds after attending them.
She said they gained a false confidence “either in their own ability, in the ability of the CFA or the combination of both. If there had been a row of CFA trucks on Bald Spur Road, everybody (in them) would have died there as well. It was simply an indefensible street in a fire situation.”
She said she believed Bald Spur residents should have been warned of their heightened fire risk: “I think that if a CFA person went to that hill to convene meetings, they should have realised that Bald Spur Road was at the highest point of Kinglake. The street consisted of homes built of combustible material. Our (children’s) house was cedar. It was like having a house in a fireplace. Yet they were encouraged to establish fireguard equipment.
“The activity of that fire group (should have been) to establish evacuation or warning systems to get people out of that street.”
She said 15 other people had died in her son’s street.
A CFA volunteer firefighter who did not wish to be named told The Age they were instructed not to offer fire-safety assessments about people’s houses because they were not qualified to do so.
First published in The Age.