Saved by the pool: how a St Andrews family escaped the giant inferno


PETER Brown had feared it would come to this. Three years earlier, as he had watched balls of smoke and flame from fires in the distance, he had a sobering thought.
He knew he had a strong bushfire plan for his St Andrews house. But he wondered what he and his family would do if the plan failed. If they did not manage to save the house, how would they save themselves?
He called a meeting then with his wife Fiona and his three teenage children. They decided they wanted to stay in the bush, but they installed a 128,000-litre concrete swimming pool – and it was there they huddled under a blanket on Black Saturday and watched their home become an inferno.
Mr Brown, chief executive of Moreland Council, yesterday told the Bushfires Royal Commission that he and his wife had built the mudbrick and bluestone house 20 years ago largely with their own hands.
He had believed he was well set up to manage on Black Saturday but said he was lulled into complacency by a lack of local warnings on ABC Radio. “On reflection, I regret relying on the ABC to the extent that I did – it gave me the impression that we had more time before the fire front arrived.”
He told the inquiry: “I believe we could have saved our house, just with a bit more warning.”
He had been seeing smoke since 2pm, and at 4pm burnt pine needles began falling from the sky into the pool. The radio had said the fire was at Clonbinane, so he assumed that the pine needles had travelled from there. When a fire broke out on his neighbour’s property, he did not think it was a potential spot fire from a bigger front.
Coming back from helping the neighbour, with his tractor engine going and earmuffs over his ears, he could still hear a dull roar, like jet engines. He saw his lawn begin to ignite with embers.
The family kitted themselves out in fire gear – balaclavas, leather gloves, goggles, boots – and he went on the roof to turn on its sprinkler system. But the power had failed.
He tried setting up the pumps but failed twice because the connectors cross-threaded. When he succeeded, the water pressure blew the outlet off.
By this time, his wife was shouting that she could see flames. He grabbed a blanket and joined his family in the pool that had been built just for this purpose. From there, he photographed smoke and flames and wind strong enough to blow tall plants over.
At 5.52pm, after the front had passed, he got out of the pool and used buckets to try to quench two small fires on the balcony at the back of the house. He was about to open a door to throw water inside a first-storey room when his wife warned him not to – she could see flames leaping within it.
“I realised that if I opened the door up, probably it would vent out,” he said. “I put my gloved hand up against the door and realised it was too far gone. I said, ‘We’ve lost it.’ ”
He returned to the pool and within 10 minutes the whole back of the house was swirling with flames.
The family left the pool an hour later. He put his wife and children in a trailer and used his tractor to take them to safety at a neighbour’s place.
He told the royal commission that he would rather get no warning at all than inaccurate ones; that in a time of drought, people would be unlikely to use precious water dampening down outside a house until they knew a threat was close; and that fire-ban days should be rated one to five, like the warning system for cyclones.
His other concern was that in March parts of the house he had hoped to use in rebuilding had been demolished and carted away in the effort to search all properties a second time for human remains.
That was when he felt like he had lost control of the situation: “I didn’t want the whole house taken out and put on the back of a truck and disappear,” Mr Brown said.
First published in The Age.