Raw emotion brings down curtain on bushfire saga

BERNIE Teague faced the media yesterday in the jaunty bow-tie that is his trademark. It didn’t quite go with the tears in his eyes.
In an emotional final press conference after their mammoth report on the Black Saturday fires, all three royal commissioners had suspiciously bright eyes and voices that occasionally caught on a jagged emotion. Many people touched by the bushfires found it was only when they paused from frantic activity that the reaction began to hit them. So too, it seems, with the commissioners.
They were asked if they would find it hard to let go of such an intense experience. Would they still pursue bushfire work in some other way?
Mr Teague, the inquiry’s chairman, smiled and said he was exhausted, but “I will, if Daylesford CFA will take me, volunteer to be part of Daylesford CFA, and I’ll take an interest in matters where people are minded to think I can help out”. Mr Teague has a weekender at Daylesford.
Commissioner Susan Pascoe would like to be involved in education, which is her professional background, so that “we keep in the foreground of people’s thinking both the loss of so many community members but also what might be done to prevent it happening on that scale again”.
They said many aspects of the work had moved them, including the pain of people in community consultations soon after the fires and the harrowing stories told by lay witnesses during the hearings.
Mr Teague, a former judge of the Supreme Court, said: “When you look at some of the photographs the police had to take, they were incredibly heart-wrenching. It goes back to my days as a judge when I would sit in my chambers and shut the doors when I wanted to read the victim impact statements because they were the things that hit me the most. When you come to photographs of small children, whatever the context, who died an unnatural death, it’s very disturbing.”
His voice trembled as he said: “You couldn’t help but feel that your heart had taken over from your mind.”
But Ms Pascoe said there was also much that was uplifting: “We have had the extraordinary privilege of listening to the raw experiences of people who have been through one of the most horrific experiences that life can dish up. By and large, those people responded with extraordinary courage . . . there are countless stories of putting the community ahead of themselves. [It has] certainly confirmed [a] deep vein of goodness.”
Commissioner Ron McLeod defended the inquiry’s controversial recommendation that the state replace its ageing power distribution network to prevent fires caused by electrical faults. The proposal would cost billions.
He said the commissioners were not ignorant of the money pressures on government “but essentially we were driven by a desire to make Victoria a safer place to live in . . . These man-made structures will not last forever and in our judgment, they continue to produce a very high threat in days of high fire danger.”
Ms Pascoe elaborated on the other controversial recommendation, for a government buyback of houses in extreme fire-risk areas. She agreed the inquiry had intended this to apply to “micro-sites” rather than whole towns: “They would be sites that are on ridgelines, often surrounded by gullies . . . particularly if they are within 100 metres of bush.”
She said the commission left it to the government to designate which areas should be targeted through township protection planning because, while certain known sites had been hit hard on Black Saturday, other places might also be at great risk on days with different conditions.
Asked whether they would stay to defend a house, given what they now know, Mr McLeod said: “How many people want to wager on their life? Because that’s what it really is, if one accepts that there’s a certain randomness in the way a bushfire can move over the landscape. In my view, it’s a fairly forlorn wager to hope that randomness will save you in a fire.”
But Mr Teague thought differently: “You’ve got to allow for the age factor, apart from any others, but I think perhaps if I had a swimming pool and wet blanket alongside, I might stay longer.”
Daylesford CFA captain Don Anderson allows for the age factor. Told yesterday that Mr Teague would put up his hand, he said: “Really? How old is he? We’re really looking for young blokes. I’ll have to have a talk with him, mate, but that’ll be fine, no worries.”