Fire spotter saw that blaze was ‘going to kill people’

IF MARYSVILLE did not get a warning of approaching fire on Black Saturday, it was not for want of trying by fire-tower spotter Andrew Willans.
At 3.30pm, he made several calls trying to warn the town to evacuate in the face of the Murrindindi fire, he told the Bushfires Royal Commission: “This thing was enormous. I felt then that this thing was going to impact not only on myself and my tower and my home but on Marysville itself. I felt it was going places. It was going to kill people.”
The fire razed the town about 6pm and left 34 dead.
Mr Willans told the commission he was a fire observer with the Department of Sustainability and Environment. Over summer he works in the Mount Gordon fire tower, three kilometres from the town.
Just before 3pm he got his first warning of a fire that had started at the Murrindindi Mill. He spotted traces of smoke from over the top of the Black Range to his west.
Mr Willans was stunned by how quickly the plume grew. At 3.30pm he decided it was “paramount” to contact the captain of the Marysville CFA brigade.
“I felt it was necessary to get the message to them so that Marysville could be warned. Marysville was a small town, it was in a hollow, they couldn’t see this, I could. I was quite determined to let them know that this was like nothing else they had ever seen before.”
The CFA phone line was busy. He tried to get through on CFA radio but it was also jammed. He rang CFA member Pauline Harrow at home: “I told her to get to the fire station as quickly as possible to sound the alarm and to evacuate Marysville as quickly as possible.”
Mrs Harrow told him there was a brigade on the way to Murrindindi: “I said this fire is too big and what we should do is sound the alarm and evacuate the town because this is huge. She said she would go straight to the station and let them know.”
Mr Willans said one spot fire began 14 kilometres ahead of the two-kilometre-wide front, “which terrified me, that this thing had dropped something that far ahead of itself”.
As the major fire came over the ridge, its force sucked the spot fires back up the hill and into the mother blaze. The cloud mass doubled in height and width in the half hour from 4pm to 4.30pm. Mr Willans said it was “full of embers, ash, burning materials – this thing was absolutely alive”.
He evacuated at 4.30pm, with instruments showing wind gusts of up to 80 km/h and a temperature of up to 44 degrees. The tower was damaged and his cabin was destroyed, he said. Marysville residents have previously given evidence that they received no warnings.
Mr Willans spent six hours fighting flames and a blizzard of embers but managed to save his Granton home.
A Marysville GP, Lachlan Fraser, yesterday said he wasted three hours trying to obtain fire information when he could have been preparing his home.
He rang the Victorian Bushfire Information Line – where he was kept waiting for 15 minutes by an operator who then had to look up where Marysville was – and was told the Murrindindi fire was about 30 kilometres away. The local radio station told him nearby Narbethong was under ember attack but a 5pm TV news service had no word of local fire, he said.
He drove to a lookout where he saw a spot fire only two kilometres from town. He dropped into the DSE office to alert them: “They didn’t seem to be in a great panic.”
First published in The Age.