Bushfire warning on road ‘ignored’



THE road where about 20 people died on Black Saturday, including Brian Naylor and his wife, had been labelled a bushfire deathtrap by residents for 26 years, but their concerns were ignored, locals said yesterday.
“The deaths, the fires, even the direction of the fires – they had all been prophesied,” said Chris Petreis of Coombs Road, Kinglake West. He said residents had been complaining since the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 that neglect by the council and other bodies had effectively turned the road into a seven-kilometre dead-end.
Mr Petreis said that on the day of the bushfires, flames came up the open northern end of Coombs Road, leaving residents like “rats in a tube”.
He said many residents would not even have tried to escape via the southern end of the road because 200metres of it was dangerously steep and so badly rutted with potholes it was considered by locals as a no-through road.
Mr Petreis said he had suggested to Whittlesea Council that he pay privately for grading and levelling of this part of Coombs Road, and of another exit track, Parkers Road, that he believed was poorly maintained. “I was told that if I touched the road I would be fined,” he said.
Fellow Coombs Road resident Alexandra Peters has a sheaf of documents given to her by the former owner of her property, a Mr W. Williams, and by Coombs Road residents Steve and Carol Wills, detailing alarm over the effective closure of that end of the road.
In 2003 the Willses wrote to the fire officer at Whittlesea Council warning: “The residents of southern Coombs Road have real concerns that should a bushfire strike this area there will be many families trapped on the top of the Coombs Road ridge, unable to escape to safety simply because the roads are in such poor repair.”
In another letter they said: “The residents of Coombs Road are concerned that should fire come from the north, we will be trapped on the hill with no safe means of escape. The poor state of these two roads will hamper access by fire crews.”
In 2000 Mr Williams had written to the council warning of the need to clear growth and of the poor condition of surfaces on southern Coombs Road and Gingles Road: “I request you to rectify all three hazards before the loss of life (not after). In this respect I have ensured the safe-keeping of this correspondence for use at any inquiry or the DPP” (the Director of Public Prosecutions).”
Twelve days later, he wrote to the council, “I am fascinated by the reply to my letter … and to hear that life and death are a matter of priority determined by a committee of the council, and the fact that Coombs Road, which has become all but impassable, is deemed adequate. I feel sure that it will not be so considered by a coronial inquiry or the DPP.”
Mr Williams had first started the letter campaign, in which he also appealed unsuccessfully to the Ombudsman, after the Ash Wednesday fires. He maintained that the southern end of Coombs Road was previously a through road that wound gently down the hill. He said parts of this old road were still visible on land that had since been fenced in by Melbourne Water.
After this, he wrote, Coombs Road was re-routed to go straight down a 700-metre section of steep slope. Mr Williams said that section of road was then damaged by army trucks in 2001 and not repaired.
But in 2004, the council wrote to Mr Williams insisting: “This section of road is a fire access track … The track was constructed purely for access by firefighting vehicles in the event of a fire in the area.”
Whittlesea Council was contacted late yesterday but was unable to gather the information needed for a detailed response. City of Whittlesea chief executive David Turnbull said the council was happy to consult residents and the CFA over fire-safety issues and would be happy to pass on concerns to any other relevant authorities.
Ms Peters and Mr Petreis said they had been told by the council that the track is to be permanently closed. Ms Peters said the council had first told her that section of track was privately owned and later told her it belonged to Melbourne Water. But VicRoads told her it was marked as a through road and was therefore the council’s responsibility, she said.
Mr Petreis said he had been furious to learn of the plan to entirely close that section off. He said that on the night of the fires he and Ms Peters escaped by risking their lives and their car down that dangerous stretch of road, because it led away from the firefront. All other roads led back into the fire. “It was the only way out,” he said.
He said the underside of his car was irreparably damaged. He saw cars abandoned at the southern end of the rough patch of road.
Mr Petreis said he would not continue to live in Coombs Road if the end of the road was permanently blocked because it would be too dangerous.
He said that he attended yesterday’s consultation by the Bushfires Royal Commission in Kinglake West but did not raise this issue because it did not fit the questions they were permitted to discuss. “In our case, nothing will work unless they give us another means of escape.”
Mr Petreis and Ms Peters were infuriated to see that a good-quality track was created on Melbourne Water land within days of the bushfires. It runs parallel to and just 10 metres from the unmaintained section of Coombs Road but is fenced off from public access.
“It’s amazing how one organisation can do it and another can’t,” Ms Peters said.First published in The Age.