Unauthorised backburn lit to fight Kinglake blaze

KINGLAKE park rangers denied that they had been panicked into conducting an unauthorised backburn just before fire struck on Black Saturday, and denied they had disagreed over what to do, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
Local resident Craig Draper, of Pine Ridge Road, said he thought the last-minute burn added to the ferocity of the fire attack on his street. It is believed 21 people died in Pine Ridge Road, including five children.
“This backburn has caused the oxygen in the air to be sucked out and, as a result, has drawn the firefront back on us at Pine Ridge Road,” he said in a witness statement.
But this was disputed by two fire investigators, who concluded that the backburn did not affect fire in the street.
Mr Draper, a trained CFA firefighter, said he was disbelieving when he heard of the backburn, which was ordered by acting chief ranger Tony Fitzgerald at around 4.30pm.
He told his informant: “You have got to be kidding. They don’t want to do that on that type of day . . . I asked a few people who worked in Melbourne Water and they said: ‘Everything’s hush-hush and yes, they did do it’.”
Mr Draper also claimed that he spoke to Kinglake ranger Natalie Brida shortly after the fires and that “Natalie stated that she didn’t agree with the decision made by Fitzgerald”. Asked if he was certain that conversation had occurred, he said: “Yes, I am.”
Ms Brida told the hearing she did not have such a conversation, that rangers had not panicked over the approaching fire, and that the decision to start the backburn had been unanimous.
Mr Fitzgerald said he decided on the backburn after having seen three large spot fires in the area.
It was “a last-ditch effort” to burn fuel in the hope that fire would be less intense if it had less material to burn.
Asked why he had not just evacuated himself and his crew, he replied: “I am a part of that community. I have lived there for 14 years.
“Having knocked on their doors, I could see that people were in their houses. I used to walk down Rae Street every morning to the office and in the bus shelter would be all the kids from Pine Ridge Road. That’s why.”
But he did not expect it to be effective: “I don’t think it had a hope of doing anything . . . It was a hopeless situation, hopeless, but it was all I could think of to do.”
He said there was no time to ask for authorisation from the fire’s incident controller. He had also been told by his supervisor earlier that while the Kilmore Incident Control Centre was managing the fire, “They aren’t functioning very well — you are on your own.”
A separate large fire struck the area within minutes of the backburn being lit.
Mr Fitzgerald and his seven crew evacuated, but his vehicle caught alight and the tyres melted. He drove on the rims of two wheels.
CSIRO bushfire analyst Dr Andrew Sullivan said two spot fires had been started by the backburn and one had been sighted by Pine Ridge Road residents, “but whether that fire impacted upon houses, I don’t know”.
In his statement, he concluded that a large fire from the north was the probable cause of flames that destroyed houses in the upper part of Pine Ridge Road: “This section of fire was in no way affected by the presence of the Parks [Victoria] burn.”
A second fire investigator, Francis Crowe of the CFA, also found no reason to believe the backburn had affected the street.