No chance to answer Kinglake questions, says firefighter

STEVE Bell was an unhappy customer. The bushfire royal commission at Kinglake yesterday allowed local people to raise questions – not all of them well-informed – but gave no one a chance to answer them, he said.
Mr Bell was angered by the tight format of the royal commission’s community consultation, which he said gave him no chance to air his suggestions for improvements or to explain what had happened on the day. Media are banned from the consultations.
“One lady was saying, ‘Why was our tanker in St Andrews?”‘ he reported.
Mr Bell, a CFA lieutenant, had led that tanker crew. “We went down to stop the bastard before it got here, and if we had’ve stopped it, none of this would have happened,” he said. “The question was raised but not answered. Our local community is still not wise as to why our tanker was taken off the mountain.”
Mr Bell said he would have told the commissioners that every fire tanker should have a satellite telephone. Communications collapsed at times on Black Saturday because the CFA radio was overloaded and mobile phone towers went down.
He criticised people at the meeting who claimed they had not been warned of the fire that devastated the small mountain town.
“There was 24 hours of warning that the weather conditions would be the worst since Ash Wednesday,” he said. “How much more do you bloody need?”
The people asking those questions had never turned up to bushfire education sessions run by the CFA, he said. “None of these people were in Community Fireguard meetings. We had two years of trying to drum it into them but they weren’t interested. Nobody bloody wanted to know about it.”
His claim of community complacency was backed by a 25-year member of the nearby Toolangi fire brigade, Jack Walhout, who said people in his area also failed to attend bushfire preparation sessions, even though his brigade had been warning for years that the heavily forested region might one day face an unstoppable fire.
“At the last meeting, we would have been lucky to have half a dozen people,” Mr Walhout said. “You would drag people by the nose to those meetings.”
Many of the 150 local residents who attended the two commission consultations yesterday thought they had been useful. One suggestion had been fire bunkers in which people could shelter, local councillor Peter Beales said. The room was split on this idea, as some feared bunkers could turn into death traps.
It had also been suggested that the council provide a mulching service to help with clearing undergrowth. “But that would be very expensive for a council that’s even worse off now with rates. We have to revalue (burnt blocks) at only land value and refund money.”
The meeting noted that informal communications often worked better during the fire and its immediate aftermath, said Mr Beales. “If people listened to (ABC radio station) 774, it was saying the fire was in Strathewen. By the time it said that, the fire was already here, and the damage was done.”
On the other hand, texting teens transmitted information fast, and many people first learned that the Beales were OK through his daughter’s Facebook site, Mr Beales said.
“The kids got out information a lot quicker than the adults could.”
Four thousand messages and drawings from well-wishers were yesterday unfurled on 100metres of paper in the circus marquee where Kinglake’s community meetings are held.
The project is the brainchild of fashion designer Maryjean Hunter and graphic designer Shekhar Kemat, who belong to a meditation group.
Mr Kemat said the group had gathered messages from people in shopping and entertainment centres to allow ordinary Victorians to transform their sorrow into something positive.
First published in The Age.