Kinglake warnings stalled by CFA protocol


CFA workers at Kangaroo Ground feared at 3pm on Black Saturday that the Kilmore fire could spread into Kinglake, but were repeatedly forbidden to issue warnings, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
Several warnings were drafted over the next few hours but never released because the Kangaroo Ground workers did not have responsibility for the fire. The fire was formally under the control of an incident control centre at Kilmore, a CFA volunteer said. An urgent threat warning was issued only at 5.20pm when Kangaroo Ground was told that Kilmore’s communication system had broken down, Serafina Munns told the commission.
Mrs Munns, a CFA volunteer, was giving evidence on a day of reports about chaotic communications and multiple warnings drawn up by three CFA centres that did not make it to the CFA’s website in time to alert people to impending danger.
On February 7, she worked in the information unit of a centre in Kangaroo Ground under incident controller Jason Lawrence. Mrs Munns said a colleague named John Cowan, who understood mapping and the equations required to predict a fire’s rate of spread, predicted at 1.30pm that the Kilmore blaze might spread into Kangaroo Ground’s CFA region.
Sending out an awareness alert was discussed but Mr Lawrence said it was not appropriate, she said. Draft warnings that she produced at 2.30pm, 3pm and 4.15pm were not released, she said. “What we were told was that ‘no fire information releases were to be issued from this ICC whilst it was not our fire’.”
The alert message drafted at 3.02pm took into account the expected wind change and warned towns including Kinglake, Pheasant Creek, Strathewen, St Andrews and Arthurs Creek that fire could hit them.
Mrs Munns said: “The answer would have remained the same: ‘It’s not our fire.’ It was a pretty constant response that it wasn’t our area and it wasn’t appropriate to give out an awareness message … I wanted the information out there, given that we had it.”
The commission has already heard that the first time Kinglake was mentioned in an urgent threat message was at 5.55pm on the CFA website. One hundred and twenty people died in the Kinglake ranges.
Mr Lawrence has yet to give evidence. The lawyer representing the state of Victoria, Kerri Judd, SC, said it was CFA protocol that the incident control centre in charge of a fire should be the one to issue warnings about it.
This was to avoid errors and miscommunication, she said, and because the local control centre would have the best information on the fire.
But the commission heard that Kilmore’s fire chief issued a warning at 4.10pm that was inexplicably delayed. The message, which would have given Kinglake residents two hours’ warning, was “not as timely as it should have been”, said Gregory Murphy, volunteer captain of the Kilmore CFA brigade.
Mr Murphy was the first incident controller told to manage the Kilmore East fire on February 7. His team issued an urgent threat message at 4.10pm for eight areas, including Kinglake.
But he said it was not until the royal commission started this month that he realised the message had been delayed. “How that happened, why that happened, I am sorry, detail I am not sure of,” he told senior counsel assisting the commission, Jack Rush, QC.
The incident controller who relieved Mr Murphy at 4.30pm, Stuart Kreltszheim, said he did not know about Mr Murphy’s message, nor did he ask about any of the messages that had been sent through the day. He said he was dealing with a multitude of other problems.
Mrs Munns said an urgent threat warning drafted at 5.20pm that day was signed by Mr Lawrence after she told him that Kilmore had asked Kangaroo Ground to issue it because Kilmore’s computer and fax had broken down.
– A former top adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been appointed chief executive of the bushfire recovery taskforce, replacing acting chief Jeff Rosewarne.
The appointment of Ben Hubbard to the position, which will pay $159,000-$253,000 a year, was slammed by the State Opposition as Labor looking after its mates. But bushfire authority head Christine Nixon said Mr Hubbard came to the job with significant state and federal experience.
First published in The Age.