20 Apr 2009

Australian bushfire hearing begins

10:31 pm on 20 April 2009

A preliminary hearing into February's deadly bushfires in the Australian state of Victoria has been told people were not properly warned.

The "Black Saturday" bushfires ripped across the state, claiming 173 lives, devastating 78 communities and destroying 2,029 homes.

The counsel assisting the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, Jack Rush QC, told the Victorian County Court on Monday that people were not aware they would be dealing with a fire of "phenomenal" speed on 7 February.

He says the fire danger index reached previously unrecorded levels that day, but the only warnings many people received were that there was a total fire ban and it would be a day of extreme fire risk.

Mr Rush says such warnings may not have adequately conveyed the danger.

He says the Commission will hear evidence in the coming weeks that for many people, the warnings were not a trigger to leave their homes early.

"Whilst people knew that the 7th of February would be a day of extreme risk, they did not have the understanding that the risk, as the McArthur Forest Fire Index demonstrated, carried with it the potential of a fire that could not be fought," he said.

"Evidence to be placed before the Royal Commission will indicate that the system of communication of warnings did not cope on 7th February 2009 and that warnings fell behind the advancing fires."

He said bushfire warnings issued will be a particular focus of the first batch of evidence that will be called by the Royal Commission.

"Evidence will demonstrate people remained in their homes unaware of approaching fires, until it was too late," he said.

Stay or go policy

The stay or go policy will also be a key focus of the Royal Commission.

He said compared to other countries, Australia's bushfire policy is unique, with fire authorities giving the public a choice to evacuate or stay and defend their homes.

"There will be evidence to suggest that accurate or timely information was not available during 7 February 2009," he said.

"Why would a resident of any of the fire affected areas implement the go policy if they were not aware of any fire threat?"

Mr Rush has told the commission there is no national standard for bushfire warnings and he says it is unclear who has responsibility for issuing warnings in Victoria.

Witnesses will begin giving evidence on 11 May and the commission is due to deliver an interim report in August.