Fire’s fury forced man to quit home

DAVID O’Halloran changed his mind about staying to defend his Flowerdale home on Black Saturday when he realised the effect the fire was having on trees, which were “just about turning around, just about being screwed out of the ground”.
His wife and three children had already fled. As he left soon after 7.30pm he drove up and down local roads with his hand on the horn, stopping to warn anyone he saw, before driving on to the pub.
He said an old man who had been burnt defending his home was brought to the hotel by car about 9pm. Four men used a plastic chair to lift the injured man, Bob Harrop, and carry him inside.
“We laid him on the floor in the bar, put him in the recovery position and put wet towels on his arms and legs,” Mr O’Halloran said. Mr Harrop later died.
The fire arrived at the hotel around midnight and Mr O’Halloran worked to extinguish spotting there and at the local primary school.
The next morning, he chainsawed through fallen trees to get to his home, which he found destroyed.
Walking down a nearby service road, he came across two bodies in a front yard, along with a burnt-out ute. He found this particularly upsetting because, while the two people appeared to have fled a burnt house, the house right next door was intact: “I’ve since found out it was a mother and son . . . They just picked the wrong house.”
Further along the road, a second burnt-out ute was crashed into a tree. He was told later a young girl had died there.
Twelve people died in the Flowerdale-Hazeldene area.
Mr O’Halloran said the idea that “leaving early” meant leaving before a fire started would see families such as his own leaving home each year from November to May.
In other evidence, CFA volunteer mapper John Cowan said he had put a ruler on a wall map at Kangaroo Ground’s incident control centre about 2pm on Black Saturday and realised a wind change could take the fire as far as Kinglake.
He reported this to supervisors at a meeting at 2.20pm: “My prediction looked bad. I basically told anyone who would listen, ‘This is the potential for this fire. This is not your average fire.’ ”
He said he was not involved in any talks about whether to issue warnings. The first official warning about Kinglake was aired at 5.55pm and the fire went through the town between 6 and 6.30pm.
Mr Cowan said he had not seen an aerial “line scan” taken of the fire, or the report of an aircraft that flew over it mid-afternoon, or heard that computer operators at Kangaroo Ground had to be given a tutorial that day in how to use the centre’s mapping software.
Mr Cowan agreed with counsel for the state, Neil Clelland, SC, that the fire spread five or six times faster than he had predicted.
First published in The Age.