Families died ‘after CFA turned them back’

Bush communities call for designated evacuation points, Karen Kissane reports from Kinglake.
A KINGLAKE mother and her three children died on Black Saturday after reportedly being turned back at a CFA checkpoint as they tried to flee the bushfire.
Nine people including Tina Wilson, 36, and her children Krystal, 15, Nathan, 13 and Teagan, 6, died while sheltering in a neighbour’s home in Pine Ridge Road.
A second family, made up of a young couple and their child, are also believed to have died in this street after being turned back at a checkpoint.
Ms Wilson’s friend and neighbour Jacqueline Hainsworth said the deaths showed the need for bush communities to have a designated safe evacuation point in case of fire.
Ms Hainsworth said that about 4.30pm that day she was evacuating from Pine Ridge Road when she stopped in her car to talk to Ms Wilson, who was returning to the street. She said Ms Wilson said the CFA had blocked the road to Whittlesea and that she was told there was no way down the mountain.
The road would have been closed because a fire was coming up the hill from Whittlesea about that time. When the wind suddenly turned, the fire changed direction and consumed areas including Pine Ridge Road.
Locals estimate about 24people died there. The coroner has not released figures on deaths in individual streets.
Ms Hainsworth said another neighbour had told Ms Wilson to go to a local carrot farm that had a wide open space, but she refused. “Tina said, ‘No, they told us to go home’.”
Ms Wilson and her children sheltered in a neighbour’s home because his house was considered safer than hers, as it was double brick with a concrete slab on a cleared block.
But the man who owned the house was horrified that nine people mistakenly believed themselves to be safe there. The man, who is still traumatised and does not wish to be named, said: “I told them to get out and everyone said they were staying.”
He confirmed Ms Wilson said she had been turned back at a CFA checkpoint. He said he hosed his house down for as long as possible but left when the inside caught fire.
The others had “decided it was safe even though the house was on fire. None of them got out.”
He said a friend had seen another couple with a young child returning to the street after being turned back at a checkpoint. He believed they died, too.
He said the fire had travelled about 20 kilometres in three minutes and was so fierce that his metal shed exploded from the effect of radiant heat on fuel stored inside: “No one that stayed was going to get out,” he said.
“There was nowhere safe to send them if you were sending them back from the checkpoint. The fire was coming straight towards our street, which means it wasn’t a safe place to go.”
He said those at the checkpoint should not be blamed because it was standard bushfire policy for people to be advised to stay in a house until the fire front passed and then go out to extinguish embers. “But things were catching fire before the fire front had hit, from the heat,” he said. “Basically it was more a wildfire than a bushfire.”
He drove to Kinglake West where the local CFA told him to turn around and drive back to central Kinglake. He sheltered with several hundred others in the CFA station in the town centre as the fire front passed over.
Ms Hainsworth said that when she lived in Research in the 1970s, “everyone knew (that in case of fire) you would go to the school because it had all the ovals, which were kept fully mowed. But communities don’t do that any more.” The other neighbour agreed that an open space should be designated and publicised: “A farmer, one with a 40-acre or 100-acre farm, should allocate a paddock in the middle of it each summer and keep it cut; one that the community could use as a fire escape and one everyone knows about.
“People can survive a grass fire where they can’t survive a bushfire.”
Ms Hainsworth escaped because her husband rang a friend with a CFA scanner who told them the road from Kinglake to St Andrews was still clear at that stage. Her family took that route.
“I cried for weeks,” she said. “This is only just hitting home now. (What happened to the Wilsons) was so close to being us. We actually turned the car around to go home, but I said, ‘I don’t want to go back there.’ Before the fire, that road was fully treed on both sides.” CFA director of community safety Lisa Sturzenegger said that on Black Saturday, CFA members in several places advised people to turn around if driving on would have put them in immediate danger.
“Whether that occurred in this case I couldn’t say,” she said.
Ms Sturzenegger said it was crucial that people in bushfire-prone areas had plans that included where to shelter if escape was impossible.
She said guidelines for setting up and maintaining mass fire refuges or evacuation points had been established in 2005, but it was up to councils to establish them.
First published in The Age.