The system that failed its bravest

SO MUCH had already gone wrong. They didn’t know the Kilmore fire was in Kinglake. They didn’t know where their second CFA tanker was because the area had so many radio black spots they couldn’t raise it. They had already fled flames that were three times as tall as the trees.
And Karen Barrow’s Black Saturday had only just begun.
In a personal submission to the Bushfires Royal Commission, Miss Barrow, a CFA volunteer and second lieutenant with the Kinglake West brigade, has told the story of one woman’s fire and the bureaucratic bungles that bedevilled it.
Miss Barrow was a driver on a tanker that responded to emergency calls. By 5pm, she and the crew were back at Kinglake West CFA station, readying hoses to protect more than 200 people sheltering there. Meanwhile, CFA pagers began beeping with emergency calls. “One message stated something like ’40-50 people trapped’. I did not look at my pager again after this – the guilt at not being able to assist was too much.”
Later, as they went to answer a call, a woman waved them down and said a man in her backyard had burns to 70 per cent of his body. The woman had called several times for an ambulance but none had arrived. “I asked the crew to stay with the truck while I checked out the patient. I did not want the crew to see a burns patient if they did not need to.”
Miss Barrow assessed his burns as third degree, but the crew was trying to answer a call from people trapped by fire. She radioed through to VicFire, the CFA’s dispatchers, who told her an ambulance was on its way.
After visits to two other properties, Miss Barrow returned to the burnt man. VicFire told her the ambulance service had spoken to the patient, but those caring for him said there had been no contact. She radioed VicFire again and was told she would have to take the man 20 kilometres to Whittlesea.
“We used the ladder as a stretcher and folded up the blankets to use as some kind of mattress,” she wrote. “We lifted him on to the rear deck of Kinglake West Tanker 1 . . . Each end of the ladder was protruding from either side of the truck.
“Progress was painfully slow as we still had to navigate around trees across the road and at times had to drive on the shoulder of the road.”
At last she was able to tell him: “We are almost there. Only a few hundred metres to go.” Then she grinned and said: “And this time I actually do mean it.” He managed a chuckle.
Miss Barrow stayed with him until an ambulance arrived around 2am. The man died about 12 days later.
Miss Barrow continued working until 5 o’clock Monday morning, a 45-hour stint. Kinglake West brigade remained operational round-the-clock for the next six weeks, putting out spot fires, clearing roads and organising deliveries of fuel, water and food.
“During this recovery phase, we received no assistance from the Shire of Murrindindi or the army,” she wrote.
The brigade’s fatigue was intense: “If it were not for brigades such as Panton Hill, Research and Kangaroo Ground, we simply would not have coped. These brigades unreservedly sent people and tankers to assist. In doing so, they shunned protocol, as protocol simply was not working.”
She said strike teams sent to help were insufficient and poorly managed, and that officials kept telling the brigade no further people or tankers were available.
First published in The Age.