The Bushfires Royal Commission will tell us what must be done to avert similar tragedies. Those findings, and the urgent need to act on them, are underscored by the stories of the 173 people who died on that dark day.
OVER the next few weeks, there will be strong debate about what we should learn from Black Saturday. Media headlines will be about what we do next — and how to pay for it. For those who have been touched by the work of the Bushfires Royal Commission, however, it is not the policy debate that will haunt. It is what has been learned about the last moments of the 173 people who died.
There was the 16-year-old boy, fleeing flames across a paddock, running with his father and mother and two younger brothers. They came to a barbed wire fence. The boy and his father scrambled over it. The others, struggling to breathe despite thick smoke and searing heat, could not.
The son told police, “We got down low so we could breathe but I realised that mum [and my brothers] were still on the other side of the fence . . . I pushed it down and I was looking around to see if I could find ’em. I was moving my arms to see if I could touch them to drag ’em over. I couldn’t find ’em but all I could hear was them screaming, and in the background I could hear my dad calling me back, saying to get out of there ’cause he would have lost me too, and he was calling me and calling me and . . . it was just getting too hot. My shoes were melting, I burned my legs and my elbows. I had to get out. I jumped over the gate again and I got to the road. All I could hear was them screaming and calling our names, saying they were burning. Dad tried to go back himself but I held him back. I said, ‘You couldn’t go in there’. Otherwise he would die. It was too hot.”
At the heart and soul of the work of this commission is the horrifying loss of 173 people, and the suffering it has meant for those left behind. During 83 hearings into deaths from fires, the royal commissioners heard many other anguished stories of families separated in fires, of whole families in which parents and young children died together, and of the last-ditch phone calls that many of those about to die made to their loved ones to say goodbye.
The commission needed to get a picture of each individual death, and a sense of what the fire plan had been in each case, in order to assess how well the state’s “stay or go” policy had worked. But it also wanted to minimise distress for the bereaved, many still deeply traumatised. More than 450 family members, friends and workmates came to the hearings.
The deaths’ inquiries were held in a small annexe, rather than the main hearing room, and they were not webcast, which made them more private. Photographs shown during the hearings were digitally altered to remove images that would have upset loved ones, and the evidence was given in hearsay summaries of witness statements. Families had the chance to ask questions or make comments at the end of each hearing, and psychologists were available to help anyone who needed it.
All the evidence was given by Detective Superintendent Paul Hollowood, head of Operation Phoenix, the police taskforce investigating the fire deaths. He told the inquiry more than 450 investigators worked on Phoenix: “At one stage there half our investigative effort for all of Victoria was actually dedicated to these fires.”
It is clear that many people died because they wanted to save their homes. Hollowood told of an 83-year-old Marysville man who refused his family’s pleas to evacuate the home he had built with his own hands, saying: “I’m going down with the ship.” The man’s son told police that his father had restricted mobility because he had fallen and hurt his back a few days before Black Saturday, but “the house was more than a house, not only to my father but to our family. Many family Christmases and other special events were held at the house and it was like a base for us all. It was because . . . [it] was like sacred ground to my family that my father chose to stay and defend the property.”
A Hazeldene man, 87, also refused to evacuate because he did not want to abandon his home. His wife would not leave him. Their son would not leave his parents, and the son’s wife would not leave her husband, even though it had always been her plan to get out if fire threatened. They all stayed, and they all perished.
But, while some ignored warnings, more died because they failed to receive any, or because their homes were never going to be defendable on a day of such extreme conditions. The commission heard that the four members of the Davey family of Kinglake lived on a heavily forested ridge and that a narrow gully effectively directed fire to their home. It also heard that Michael Flynn, who died of his burns after being transported to help in the back of a Kinglake West CFA truck, had always planned to evacuate in case of fire and might have survived had an urgent warning requested by the Whittlesea CFA captain at 3.58pm been uploaded on the CFA website.
Black Saturday overturned the conventional wisdom on bushfire safety. In the past, people inside houses mostly survived, and around a third of those who died were people who were on the road because they had fled too late. On Black Saturday, only 14 per cent of those who died were fleeing, either in cars or on foot. But a remarkable 69 per cent (113) died trying to shelter inside houses, sheds or bunkers.
John Handmer is head of RMIT University’s Centre for Risk and Community Safety. He and two other academics were asked by the commission to report on the deaths and what they implied for the stay or go policy. Mobile phone and computer records mean that there is an unprecedented amount of information available about the intentions and final actions of those who died that day. Handmer concluded that the stay or go policy might be sound on paper but that it presented “major challenges, particularly for very fast-moving and intense bushfires”. He found:
■Most of those who died were unaware of fire risk generally, and what the extreme conditions that day meant.
■Only half had a fire plan, many of those were of poor quality, and even the good plans had weak links.
■Forty-four per cent of those who died were vulnerable because of age, youth or disability.
■Disagreements between men and women over whether to evacuate (women wanted to go, men wanted to say) led to last-minute changes in plans or failure to commit to action in time.
■For 32 per cent, the defensibility of the property was questionable, and severe wind damage to roofs or windows emerged as a new factor that opened houses to fire attack.
■Thirty per cent were taken by surprise, and fewer than 10 per cent received an official warning.
■Many who fled in cars survived, and it was possible that modern cars provided better protection than in the past.
Handmer concluded the evidence supported the stay or go idea that it was dangerous to shelter “passively” — but he also found that “most people who became fatalities did not, and could not, respond appropriately to the risk that the bushfires presented for them on 7 February 2009 . . . This highlights the key role of clear advice tailored to people’s circumstances, timely and specific information and warnings, and of safe accessible places for people . . . to relocate to. It also suggests implications for policy-makers in the fields of land-use planning, development control and the management of bushfire fuels.”
Many bereaved relatives who attended the hearings expressed hope that the commission would lead to change.
One of them was Jill Scherman. Her son, Greg Lloyd, 22, was holidaying with two friends at a relative’s house in Steels Creek on Black Saturday. He was in phone contact with family that afternoon and reported that the house was full of smoke. By 6.18pm, he had given up all hope. He rang his mother on his mobile to say goodbye: “We are in the bathroom together, Mum. I love you very much and I am dying. I want you to know we are OK together.” His mother later said: “He was quiet, calm and peaceful. There was a click on the phone and then we lost contact.” All three died.
His mother told the commission: “In the usual course of life, you cannot gain experience without paying a price. But in the experience of the many bushfire-affected families of this state and those in charge of systems, agencies etc, the price has been immeasurable, and not learning from this experience would be even more costly, adding to the agony . . . To those in government responsible for ensuring that systems recommended by this royal commission are put in place, please listen and don’t allow further tragedy.”
First published in The Age.
The final report will be available online this afternoon at www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au. Free copies can be ordered from Information Victoria on 1800 463 684.