Police refused to enter ‘hellhole’


A POLICEMAN refused to evacuate a badly injured firefighter from Strathewen on Black Saturday, saying: “I’m not going into that f—ing hellhole and nor are any of my members.”
The Bushfires Royal Commission, inquiring into 11 Strathewen deaths yesterday, heard that firefighter Joe Shepherd died several days later. Mr Shepherd, 60, was found on a road near his van and his son Daniel, 32, was found dead inside the vehicle. Their path was blocked by a fallen tree.
The hellhole remark was quoted in a statement by CFA volunteer Michael Chapman that was read to the inquiry. Mr Chapman said CFA volunteers drove Mr Shepherd to a police checkpoint.
Telephone records showed Daniel Shepherd had tried to call 000 for help at 5.21pm but the call went unanswered.
The Shepherds had been trying to help a relative, Hendrik Vreulink, defend his house. They left the property when Mr Vreulink saw fire approaching, with a 40-metre wall of flame across his driveway. Mr Vreulink escaped, fleeing on foot through the bush and then being picked up by neighbour Denis Spooner.
Police arson chemist John Kelleher concluded the Shepherds might have been distracted by spot fires from recognising that a much larger fire was approaching. He said Daniel Shepherd seemed to be following advice to shelter in a car, but this was not appropriate when trees were alight nearby.
Mr Spooner claimed the local council had failed to remove roadside vegetation, which he said was responsible for the deaths of at least five people, including his wife and son, who were trapped by fallen trees. He said rural roads should be treated like firebreaks but instead “they are death traps . . . [Victoria] has got to revise these policies or buy us out and move us out and let the bush take over. It’s time someone took this government to task for all of this . . . People come before greenies. You can always plant another tree but you can’t plant another human being.”
Mr Spooner criticised forensic investigators for combing his property four times and concluding that there were no signs of his son’s presence, even though his son’s watch was in plain view. And he claimed that investigators had failed to find the body of one of his neighbours for more than four weeks: “They thought he was at another house. How do you think his family felt? His kids? They walked through that house when they were allowed back in and he was behind a door. What if they opened the door?”
The commission also heard that Michael Winton, 53, died of a heart attack that began at a police checkpoint where he was stopped from searching for his mother. Irma Winton, 77, died after repeatedly refusing family pleas to evacuate because she wanted to defend her home.
Five people, including three teenagers, died in or near a house in Pine Ridge Road whose roof had been lifted and flipped by the wind, then hurled into forest. Mr Kelleher’s report concluded: “The winds seem to have considerably exceeded design expectations.”