“…I finished .. about 8 o’clock that night and there had been no reports at that stage of casualties…”

To give us some comprehension of the magnitude of the breakdown in functions of the Victorian fire bureaucracies on 7 Feb 2009, it is helpful to ponder this statement by Dr Tollhurst
telling how he left Melbourne fire HQ around 8pm on the 7th Feb 2009 having heard no reports of casualties. An hour or two after ~150 people were dying.
Here is the exact quote from the ABC TV Four Corners doc on 16th Feb. I have the whole transcript pasted below. (Scroll down two thirds of article)
[Well I guess the surprising thing was that at the end of the day, I finished my time there about 8 o’clock that night and there had been no reports at that stage of casualties, so I was quite surprised when I got back to my accommodation and turned the news on at about 11 o’clock to hear of the tragedies.]

ABC journalist Jane Cowan is doing a stirling job continuing to report the fallout from the fires and the Royal Commission. To read her series of articles – Got to be a book in this Jane.
This recent article about the effect of the wind change late on 7 Feb reveals fire execs mindsets and amazing uniformity of views. Justifying their failure to update their warnings late in the afternoon when BoM data showed the change coming early.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation
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Program Transcript

Read the program transcript from Quentin McDermott’s report “Two Days in Hell”, first broadcast 16th February 2009.

Reporter: Quentin McDermott

Date: 16/02/2009

(Excerpt of footage of bushfires, houses burning down, wildlife fleeing. Aerial footage of areas destroyed by bushfire.)

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Nine days ago the deadliest bushfires of modern times tore through the Victorian countryside. Leaving entire towns razed to the ground.

And hundreds of families mourning the loss of loved ones who’d perished in their homes, or on the roads, trying to escape.

Even now, the tragedy of what occurred continues to escalate.

(End of Excerpt)

KEVIN RUDD, PRIME MINISTER: I think it’s very important that the nation, braces itself for more bad news. This is of a scale which takes your breath away and I fear things will get worse before they get better.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Tonight on Four Corners, the story of that terrible weekend, the darkest in Victoria’s history, told from seven very different perspectives.

The survivors’’, the fire-fighters’, the volunteers’, the doctors’, the scientist’s, the forensic investigator’s, and the Premier’s.

SUE HOLMES, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: Flames. Lots of flames. Trees on fire, 100 foot high. Embers, branches falling. Animals running for their life. Other people trying to escape, the fear on their faces.

Um just beyond belief, absolutely beyond belief.

(On Screen Text: Two Days in Hell. Reporter: Quentin McDermott)

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: All year Victoria sweltered in a series of heatwaves, and in the weeks before the bushfires, it got even hotter.

(Excerpt of News footage)

NEWSREADER: The hot spell buckled train lines and left commuters stranded in Victoria and South Australia.


DR KEVIN TOLHURST, FIRE ECOLOGY SPECIALIST, MELBOURNE UNI: We had a sequence of days above 40 degrees across the state which was an unprecedented run of extreme fire weather and it was so extreme that even things like ivies were browning off or scorching in the in the heat.

We had record numbers of deaths of people in the community, hospitals were overwhelmed with people with various heat related stresses, it was an incredible week leading up to the fires.

ASSOC. PROF. MARK FITZGERALD, DIRECTOR OF EMERGENCY, ALFRED HOSPITAL: We had the heat wave where we had to call in extra people and enact a sort of mini disaster plan the week before and we’ve been having an average of one major burns patient per day up until the bushfires and we did have a discussion on the Friday about one, what would happen if there was another heat wave and secondly our response if there was a bushfire.

(On Screen Text: Friday 6 February 2009)

(Excerpt from ABC Radio 774)

RADIO HOST: Saturday will be a day of extreme fire danger right across the state of Victoria and we are certainly urging everybody to be aware that they’re vulnerable wherever they are and they need to plan now to protect themselves and their property for the potential for fire.

(End of Excerpt)

RUSSELL REES, CHIEF OFFICER, COUNTRY FIRE AUTHORITY: And in giving this brief for the weather tomorrow, I want you to reach back…

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: On Friday, the day before the firestorm, temperatures in the mid 40s were being forecast.

Victoria’s fire chiefs and Premier became increasingly concerned.

RUSSELL REES, CHIEF OFFICER, COUNTRY FIRE AUTHORITY: The situation is quite clearly in a weather sense for tomorrow that we are in almost uncharted territory.

And when I say unchartered territory, there are no records that show the sort of fire conditions tomorrow predicted.

I looked at it and I thought these figures have got to be wrong, there’s got to be a glitch in the computer. In effect our weather conditions for the state if I said they are bloody horrible I am underestimating them, I have never seen figures like this.

JOHN BRUMBY, PREMIER OF VICTORIA: It’s just as bad a day as you can imagine and on top of that the State is just tinder-dry.

(Excerpt from ABC Radio 774)

RADIO INTRO: 774 ABC Melbourne, your emergency services network. Bushfire information.

RADIO HOST: Today has been declared a day of total fire ban in the entire state of Victoria. The Country Fire Authority reminds you that now is the time to implement your personal bush fire plan.

If you’re planning to leave your property, leave early, if you’re planning to stay and defend your property you should be properly prepared.

(End of Excerpt)

JOHN BRUMBY, PREMIER OF VICTORIA: I was very alarmed. I spent the first, must have been ten minutes of my press conference just warning Victorians about what an horrific day Saturday could well be and all the predictions we had on temperature and wind, I remember saying this, were going to make it worse than anything we’d ever seen.

And I repeated all the warnings of the fire authorities, that is if you don’t need to travel on Saturday don’t travel, and if you are in a fire affected area and you need to leave, leave early or have your fire plan in place

So it was going to be an horrific day, I think we all prepared for a high tide, a king tide even, and what we got was a tsunami.

(Excerpt from ABC Radio 774)

JEFF, RADIO CALLER: I’ve been involved in fire fighting for nearly 30 years and we’ve been through some very very difficult days, but I’ve never seen a weather forecast as extreme as this one.

(End of Excerpt)

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Firefighters on the ground were also becoming increasingly anxious.

(Excerpt from ABC Radio 774)

JEFF, RADIO CALLER: On Saturday we’re going to have temperatures well into the 40s and in some parts of the state into the mid 40’s.

The difficulty with that compared to our experience last week was that are going to have very, very dry strong hot northerly winds and that makes it incredibly likely that fires that do start to spread very quickly and be very hard to contain.

(End of Excerpt)

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: We’d been warned over the, over the, you know, media from the Premier down to the CFA etcetera for the last few days that the weather for the Saturday was supposed to be extreme.

Now ah, some of the forecasts over the couple of days beforehand were sort of beyond belief, they were, they were, they were crunching numbers and fire danger indexes and things that’s just unprecedented.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Kevin Tolhurst is a fire behaviour specialist and ecologist. His skill is in forecasting what a fire will do.

Like most professionals in the field, his first, most basic tool is the fire hazard index.

The aim of the index has always been to ensure that the great bushfire catastrophes of the past, like Black Friday, and Ash Wednesday, could never happen again.

But ten days ago, the index went through the roof.

DR KEVIN TOLHURST, FIRE ECOLOGY SPECIALIST, MELBOURNE UNI: We use an index which was developed back in the 50s and 60s and it’s based on the conditions experienced in 1939 on Black Friday and the scale goes from 0 to 100.

We were experiencing indexes of in excess of 200 in some places in Victoria, in many places they were well over 100 so around 150 and beyond, which is in excess of what we experienced on Ash Wednesday.

They’re the most extreme fire danger conditions that we’ve ever had in this State since human, since European settlement.

(On Screen Text: Saturday 7 February 2009)

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Victoria held its breath, and Saturday dawned.

JOHN BRUMBY, PREMIER OF VICTORIA: I woke at 5am Saturday morning and I was just anxious about the day. I just, I just had a feeling about the day. I’ve seen other days like that.

I always remember, I vividly remember Ash Wednesday. I was in Castlemaine, Ash Wednesday. I remember that. I remember just the cloud of smoke and dust and everything as it blew up to us and so I was very anxious about the day.

RUSSELL REES, CHIEF OFFICER, COUNTRY FIRE AUTHORITY: The day dawned for me and I got up and did the usual thing, you know eat, eat the, eat the Weetbix. A very calm morning. The wind wasn’t up. And I’m sitting there looking at it, this and saying you know perhaps we’ll get away with it.

You know like it’s not there yet. By the time I’d got into the office, turned the computer on and looked at the weather everything the bureau had told us was starting to happen.

The wind was blowing in western Victoria. Temperature’s climbing rapidly and I’m sitting there looking at it. By 11 o’clock, 11 o’clock we got 40s across the State, you know 40 degrees of temperature, wind blowing a gale and I knew we were in for it.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In much of Victoria, it was the hottest day on record, with temperatures soaring to 48 degrees.

Fire-fighters in Whittlesea, led by their Captain, Ken Williamson, were gearing up.

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: It was certainly, getting hot at a rapid rate and the wind was building up to, you know, 25, 30 k from the north and building and I said ah my first lieutenant Rowland, I said Rowland I think this is not going to be such a good day, so we put a few more preparations in place and we decided we’d stand another truck up straight after lunch.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In the little town of Flowerdale, north-east of Whittlesea, residents were hoping for some relief from the heat.

JOHN DE MARIA, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: I was laying out in the pool out the back and I thought there’s nothing on the radio about it impacting on us, or anything like that, so I thought but I don’t trust that. I’ll go set up all me gear and I fired up the sprinklers and dragged the generator and dusted it off and got things going, and just in case.

You know better to be safe than sorry I thought.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: He wasn’t the only one who was taking extra precautions.

JOHN BRUMBY, PREMIER OF VICTORIA: I was at our farm at Harcourt with Rosemary and Nicholas. I attended to some more of our fire plan.

We fed some of our stock very early before it got hot. In the morning we went into Bendigo. I bought a second fire pump. I was just anxious about the day. We had one and I bought a second pump.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: South-east of Melbourne, in the Bunyip State National Park, a fire which had been ignited by lightning earlier that week was still burning.

(Excerpt of footage of Bunyip State National Park fire)

FIREFIGHTER: Spot fires crossed (inaudible) north road, just south of Jacksons road.

FIREFIGHTER 2 (speaking into 2 way radio): Did you get an update on the weather forecast?

FIREFIGHTER 3: Negative at this stage, I’m having communications difficulties, but we’ve had a wind change back at some stage to the north east, North West.

FIREFIGHTER 2 (speaking into 2 way radio): Affirmative, experiencing that at the moment.

LABERTOUCHE RESIDENT: I’ve spent about 20 years in Labertouche.

FIREFIGHTER 4: Insurance is paid up? We’re just, we’re under-resourced at the moment, they’re throwing everything at this at the moment.

(End of Excerpt)

DR KEVIN TOLHURST, FIRE ECOLOGY SPECIALIST, MELBOURNE UNI: I was hoping to have a, have a quiet day but I had an early phone call to say we’re already having trouble with a fire that had been burning for a couple of days at that stage in the Bunyip Park and I was surprised I guess that that hadn’t been controlled.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Kevin Tolhurst was asked to come in and help the fire chiefs at Melbourne’s Emergency Coordination Centre.

The Centre was focussed on the Bunyip fire, but what happened next would change the state of Victoria for evermore.

At 11:49am, reports surfaced of a fire at Kilmore, 60 kilometres due north of Melbourne.

Within an hour it had jumped the Hume Highway and was racing east across the Great Dividing Range, through Wandong towards Kinglake.

In Whittlesea, twenty kilometres from Kinglake, Ken Williamson was hearing news of the approaching fires.

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: I received a phone call that there was a fire in Kilmore and this fire was building rapidly. I have a niece who lives in Wandong and apparently, talking to my brother-in-law a house was becoming under threat, they were leaving.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: That afternoon, at the fire-fighters’ Emergency Co-ordination Centre in Melbourne, fire chiefs were growing increasingly alarmed.

RUSSELL REES, CHIEF OFFICER, COUNTRY FIRE AUTHORITY: I stood in the middle of the street in the middle of Melbourne and the wind was blowing and the sun was shining and the sky was angry.

Now this angry sky, people talk about it with cloud and smoke and tumultuous wind and dust. And I walked up the corner of the street and I looked up and down the street and the street was nearly empty.

And I looked around and I felt the wind and the description that came to me afterwards was it was the only time that the wind was hotter than the sun. It was just an unbearable day.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Just north of Whittlesea, firefighters tackled the first in a series of spot fires.

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: About three thirty we got our initial call to a spot fire off Jack’s Creek Road, in Whittlesea.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: is this where it spotted?

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: This is the initial fire the Whittlesea Fire Brigade got called to, and it would have been probably two and a half hours after the initial fire in Kilmore started.

Probably 15 or 20 k away from here.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: So the spot fire travelled 15 or 20 kilometres?

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: Yeah unprecedented, the amount, the actual distance that it spotted. I’ve never seen a fire start so far away from a fire front.

(Excerpt of footage of Kilmore fire)

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: As burning embers rained down on forests, towns, and grassland, the Kilmore fire became a firestorm.

(End of Excerpt)

RUSSELL REES, CHIEF OFFICER, COUNTRY FIRE AUTHORITY: What happened is, from my experience what happens on every bad day, all of a sudden almost the State exploded.

DR KEVIN TOLHURST, FIRE ECOLOGY SPECIALIST, MELBOURNE UNI: We had, would have had in excess of 100 fires in the grass and the forests on Saturday. Some of them were in fact rounded up but some were just took so quickly that there was no way you could have suppressed them.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: By mid-afternoon on Saturday, the firies knew they had lost the battle to contain the inferno.

Sometime after four o’clock, the Whittlesea firefighters tackled yet another spot fire.

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: This spot fire got out of control probably within ten minutes of us getting here and it was uncontrollable.

It was probably blowing at close to 100 kilometres an hour, unbelievable, and it come over the mountains like a thunderstorm, it was unbelievable thunder, roll of thunder I’ve never seen anything like it.

There wasn’t so much in what I could see fire balls in the air, it was more just roaring through the tree tops. Unbelievable.

Something I’d never seen before. There was a few large flames over the horizon but really this just turned day into night and just roared.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: As the fires took hold, hundreds of men, women and children living nearby were caught unawares.

In Flowerdale, John de Maria, who managed to save his home, was there when the firestorm descended on him and his family.

JOHN DE MARIA, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: There was this massive roar, like these planes coming towards you and and the wind picked up and massive, it was like a tornado, it’s just incredible. And so the, put the family in the car and I thought too late to run.

I put them in the house first, but then the smoke, cause then the place went dark. The wind stopped and then there was the fireball.

You know, houses were exploding, and then I went to next door. When that went up the dogs were there and they were screaming, oh.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: John’s neighbour Joe Milbourne was oblivious to the mounting storm. His car was in a garage getting fixed, and he was home alone, engrossed in the pages of a novel.

JOE MILBOURNE, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: I was sitting reading a book, the power went off which is nothing strange for around here. And I’ve got one of them little wind up lanterns, didn’t, never needs a battery so I just wound that up and kept reading and about 20 minutes later I noticed a red glow through my curtains.

I got up to have a look, went out the front veranda and um, Armageddon had arrived, it was just unbelievable.

By the time I’d got a few things together, walked down the end of my drive, it was eating my house. And just unbelievable mate. My street had 47 houses in it, there’s four left.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Thirty kilometres south of Flowerdale, and 50 kilometres from Kilmore, Sue Holmes was spending Saturday at her home near Kinglake.

SUE HOLMES, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: We were watching, you know checking for fires and the radio’s on in the background and we’re, we’re you know, just aware of what’s going on and we’re hearing yeah there’s problems in Kilmore, there’s problems in Kilmore.

(Excerpt from ABC Radio 774, 3:22pm)

RADIO HOST: Sorry whereabouts are you?

RADIO CALLER: I’m in Kinglake, yep, and I was just sitting here watching the wall of smoke just come across, and it’s just black like a storm cloud and it has just completely blocked out the sun.

I mean if I didn’t know about those fires I’d say we’re about to be hit by a wall of flames.


QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Shortly after 3pm, frantic Kinglake callers were phoning in with their news. Half an hour later firefighters tackled their first blaze in the town.

But the fire was moving at breakneck speed, and it wasn’t until nearly an hour later that the first official alert went out on ABC Radio 774.

(Excerpt from ABC Radio 774)

JON FAINE, RADIO HOST: The situation at Kinglake has been reported as serious and Peter Mitchell is at the fire station in Kinglake, Peter, good evening.

PETER MITCHELL, RADIO CALLER: G’day John how are you?

JON FAINE, RADIO HOST: What can you tell us?

PETER MITCHELL, RADIO CALLER: The whole of Kinglake is ablaze mate.

JON FAINE, RADIO HOST: What can you actually see now?

PETER MITCHELL, RADIO CALLER: Flames everywhere. Trees exploding, gas tanks exploding, buildings on fire, it’s very very very serious.

JON FAINE, RADIO HOST: Which buildings can you see on fire Peter?

PETER MITCHELL, RADIO CALLER: Well I’m sheltering at the moment, so it’s a bit hard to see across the road from the pub, shops on fire, I can’t quite see down into the main stretch of town, but there’s a lot of flame coming up from there.

So I presume most of the town is going up.

There will be multiple houses gone, including mine I would imagine. Yeah, it’s worse case.

It’s like Cockatoo back at Ash Wednesday.

(End of Excerpt)

SUE HOLMES, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: Everything went black, black like you’ve never seen before. It just went black. And then I could hear a roar, a roar of, I don’t know, 10 jumbo jets starting up, and explosions.

You could hear explosions, but you couldn’t see. We couldn’t see the fire there was so much smoke, there was so much, and I thought we were going to die. We were just gonna die.

(Excerpt of home video footage of Kinglake fire)

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In homes and cars dotted across a wide swath of countryside, as darkness fell, an unbearable tragedy was unfolding.

(End of Excerpt)

SUE HOLMES, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: It was like the world had come to an end. Um, the fear, I’ve never felt fear like that in my life.

It was like the world had exploded, a bomb, a holocaust, or call it what you want. Um, but I just can’t describe what it was like.

You making decisions and hoping they’re the right ones, that er, that you’re going to survive. It was all about survival.

It was all about, my God, I’ve got to save these people that I have in the car. I have responsibility for them.

They’re my grandchildren. It’s my daughter, it’s my son-in-law. It’s my best friend, and you’ve got to save them.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Although Sue Holmes didn’t know it at the time, families everywhere were having to make similar decisions after being trapped by spot fires which were starting hundreds of metres ahead of the main fires.

DR KEVIN TOLHURST, FIRE ECOLOGY SPECIALIST, MELBOURNE UNI: The hot gasses and the embers get carried at the speed of the the wind and we’re talking about winds of 50, 60, 70 kilometres an hour average.

So people were being surrounded effectively by a firestorm. They would have embers land near them, they’d have the combustible gasses already there and with all, with almost no notice they would have been engulfed, surrounded by flames.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In Kinglake, built on an escarpment, the fire was unstoppable.

RUSSELL REES, CHIEF OFFICER, COUNTRY FIRE AUTHORITY: The fire’s gone up the slope into Kinglake, which is on a bit of a plateau, and it would’ve spat bits of fire everywhere.

You know a splattering on a, on an enormous landscape scale, you know, like just enormous. And we knew that whatever resources we had, whatever they were, no matter what they were they could not have stopped such a fire.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: At least 39 people died in the Kinglake inferno.

But there were miraculous escapes. When Ken Williamson and his second lieutenant pulled up at this house, they found a family fighting to save their home.

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: We noticed two men here with a hose, a garden hose, just a garden hose battling against all odds to try and save this house. And I said to Tim, we’ve got to pull up and get these people out.

Tim run down there, just then the wind changed and it was really roaring, and the next thing I know Tim’s running up the driveway here with two little girls in dresses under his arms, out of breath, put them in the car, the next thing I see, Mum and Grandma and a couple of puppy dogs, we got them in the car, everyone’s sitting on everyone’s knees, flat out down to Whittlesea, drop them off, flat out back up the hill to continue our work, unbelievable.

We expected to find these two gentlemen, you know, probably deceased, but remarkably we come back and they were still squirting water, unbelievable.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Again and again, neighbours risked their lives to save neighbours.

JOHN DE MARIA, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: Joe, poor Joe, it was, he didn’t have a car. He didn’t know anything and he, he sort of wandering up the road, and you know he says you know what’s happening, you know?

I says look we got a, we got a fire bearing down on us, you know. We’re in a lot of trouble here, ’cause it was, it was roaring then. I said Joe stay with me. And then he was fantastic you know.

So I got him to take my missus and daughter and take the car up on there and look after them. He’s great with kids, ’cause my daughter’s terribly traumatised out of it, and he kept her, kept her calm and that and talked to her.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Joe Milbourne took his neighbour’s family on a short, but hazardous journey to relative safety, dodging burning trees as he drove.

JOE MILBOURNE, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: There’s a dirt road intersection and I figured in the middle of the dirt road where the fire’s already been, we’re going to be pretty safe. Um and when, when that tree started to burn we just backed the cars up a little bit, we kept them all on with the air conditioners on, wet towels on our mouths, um and if it got too hot that side, we drove over that side and it was just that close.

I mean it was 360 degree flames, everybody, everybody that stayed in town was surrounded.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Astonishingly, back in Melbourne’s Emergency Coordination Centre, no news of any fatalities was filtering through.

DR KEVIN TOLHURST, FIRE ECOLOGY SPECIALIST, MELBOURNE UNI: Well I guess the surprising thing was that at the end of the day, I finished my time there about 8 o’clock that night and there had been no reports at that stage of casualties, so I was quite surprised when I got back to my accommodation and turned the news on at about 11 o’clock to hear of the tragedies.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Sue Holmes fled to the local fire station.

SUE HOLMES, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: It took so long for anyone to come. No one could get to us. We were just stuck there, in this place with all these people that needed help.

The woman breast feeding her four week old baby that had escaped. The woman that came in with her three children absolutely terrified.

Um the man that came on the motor bike he’d had a head-on collision with someone and needed some help. We could do nothing to help him.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: But that evening, a desperate operation was underway to ferry the critically injured to hospital.

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: We made quite a few trips up and down the mountain with some injured people and some seriously injured people, terribly burnt, terribly injured and God willing they’ll all live. Mm.

(Excerpt of footage of bushfire victims at Alfred Hospital)

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: At the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, the decks had been cleared for a major influx of patients.

(End of Excerpt)

ASSOC. PROF. MARK FITZGERALD, DIRECTOR OF EMERGENCY, ALFRED HOSPITAL: I was going to have an early night and then I got a phone call just before 10 o’clock, we’d had three incoming burns patients and our report from the crews was that there were uncontrolled fires north east of Melbourne so we thought we’d better step things up.

And ah, we had the burns surgeons, plastics teams coming into the hospital and then a number of us came in as we started cranking up our disaster response.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: That night, a total of 23 patients, some with terrible injuries, arrived at the hospital.

Only a handful of the most badly burned made it to the intensive care unit.

ASSOC. PROF. CARLOS SCHEINKESTEL, DIRECTOR ICU, ALFRED HOSPITAL: We were expecting more. Out of the total number only seven arrived in Intensive Care on the first night and on the subsequent day we took two more intensive care patients from the Austin Hospital and brought them across here.

We were expecting more than this but unfortunately many of them died before they could get here.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Why was that, why were there so few patients coming in?

ASSOC. PROF. CARLOS SCHEINKESTEL, DIRECTOR ICU, ALFRED HOSPITAL: I imagine the intensity of the fire, the rapidity with which it crept up on people meant that many people who were making decisions at the last moment were just unable to get away.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The relatively small number of patients arriving at the Alfred was deceptive.

(Excerpt from ABC Radio 774)

RADIO HOST: There’s been an update from the DSE on the Marysville township. The DSE understands that everyone is safe in Marysville and they’re assembled at Gallipoli Park. So just repeating that, the DSE understands that everyone is safe in Marysville and they’re all assembled at Gallipoli Park.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Tragically, as many as a hundred of Marysville’s residents may have perished, after a fire at Murrindindi, to the north-west, which police believe may have been arson, swept over the town.

Later the Kilmore and Murrindindi fires converged, forming a one hundred kilometre fire front.

(Excerpt of footage of survivors of Marysville fire)

WAYNE BICKERING, MARYSVILLE RESIDENT: It’s good, thank you for that.

JENNY BARNARD, SALVATION ARMY: That’s alright, no worries at all, pleasure. You’re okay mate.


QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: As those who survived the fires fled the scene, makeshift relief centres started springing up in nearby towns like Healesville and Whittlesea.

RODNEY BARNARD, SALVATION ARMY: About 9:15 we received a phone call from our headquarters in Melbourne, our head office and they said that they’d, it was a significant situation up here at Whittlesea, that they needed a group of chaplains, Salvation Army personnel to go up and to, to support the fire effort.

That a command post had been set up here and that they were expecting at that point a significant number of fatalities and injuries.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: What was the scene that greeted you when you arrived?

RODNEY BARNARD, SALVATION ARMY: Um, yeah, it was, it was probably organised chaos. There was lots of things happening. There was lots of CFA personnel here already, who were coming back from the fire scene, for relief after being involved all day.

Ah there was a, a huge number of ambulances, I think there was about 20 ambulances here coming and going.

BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: The last thing that my brother kind of said, he was on the roof hosing the house down and the last thing he said was the power has gone out and the pump is not working to pump the water out of the hose. So just tell Mum I love her and I’ll see you when we see you.

JENNY BARNARD, SALVATION ARMY: A lot of families were distraught because they didn’t know where relatives were, they’d come down off the mountain and had left loved ones up there, they weren’t sure whether they were still there or if they’d run to another place and, yeah that was a, a really tough night for a lot of people because people just didn’t know if their loved ones were going to even come here, they had no idea.

(On Screen Text: Sunday 8 February 2009)

(Excerpt from ABC Offsiders program)

BARRIE CASSIDY, TV PRESENTER: At least 25 people are confirmed dead and the toll could eventually climb much higher when emergency workers are able to reach the worst hit areas.


QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: As dawn broke on Sunday, the full extent of the devastation and grief caused by the bushfires started to emerge.

JOHN BRUMBY, PREMIER OF VICTORIA: No one could get into these areas. You couldn’t get aerial appliances in. No one could get in. There was no communication.

It really wasn’t til Sunday that some of the, the really tragic reports came in about places like Marysville and so on.

ASSOC. PROF. MARK FITZGERALD, DIRECTOR OF EMERGENCY, ALFRED HOSPITAL: By seven o’clock Sunday morning, basically we’d realised that, unless people were able to run out of the area, or there was some very unusual circumstance, they weren’t going to survive.

So most of the people with burns injuries that we saw had limb injuries, they had full thickness burns to the soles of their feet but there were not many people with trunk or facial injuries because, basically if you had that degree of burn it was going to be difficult for you to survive.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: At 7.30am, after snatching a three hour break, Ken Williamson and his fellow firefighters were back in the field.

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: Everyone went out in the trucks and we tried to cut our way through as many roads as we could ah, searching houses, making sure people weren’t still injured somewhere in, we hadn’t got into the night before and the dark, some places were that unsafe that we just couldn’t get into after the devastation of the previous evening.

(Excerpt of footage of bushfire devastated town)

SUE HOLMES, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: This is the street my daughter was living in. There’s been deaths in these houses. Not sure of the numbers, but I believe one of them, there was nine people in the house.

There’s not one house left in this street. They’re all just gone, I don’t know, probably 40 houses, somebody died there, there’s flowers out the front now.

(End of Excerpt)

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Entire streets are now mourning the passing of those who lived there.

And many of those who did escape with their lives lost everything they possessed.

(Vision of Quentin McDermott and Joe Milbourne walking amongst the charred ruins of Joe Milbourne’s house)

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: So Joe this is, this is all that remains?

JOE MILBOURNE, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: Yep um, me house name, which was my mother’s middle names, we, she never knew where they came neither. Um and me letterbox, that was it.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Well the letterbox is unscathed


QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: But the whole of the rest of the property is just absolutely destroyed.

JOE MILBOURNE, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: It’s um, nuclear bomb came I reckon.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Let’s have a look around.


QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Tell me about these trees.

JOE MILBOURNE, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: All these trees here, everything in the garden was that big when I planted it and pencil pines there were, um, it’s just hard to imagine mate.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: And then over here, what’s over here?

JOE MILBOURNE, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: This, this, sadly this is my flagpole.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: You used to fly the flag.

JOE MILBOURNE, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: I used to fly the flag, yes. That’s my front veranda there, that’s the meter box.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Is there anything else, is there anything remaining here at all that, that’s, that you can…

JOE MILBOURNE, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: Not salvageable no, no, it’s um total devastation.

(End of Excerpt)

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: When Kevin Tolhurst returned to the Emergency Coordination Centre on Sunday morning, there was an air of disbelief that so many casualties had occurred.

He is still coming to terms with the number of lives lost.

DR KEVIN TOLHURST, FIRE ECOLOGY SPECIALIST, MELBOURNE UNI: To hear of the fatalities it really makes you, want to rethink and understand why it is that the, the strategy of preparing to stay and defend your house compared with evacuating early.

Why has that come unstuck in this situation. We really need to understand that.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Well is it simply the wrong policy?

DR KEVIN TOLHURST, FIRE ECOLOGY SPECIALIST, MELBOURNE UNI: No I don’t believe it’s the wrong policy. I think the alternative that we have really is an evacuation policy and we’ve seen how in America and in Europe, I guess where that creates its own problems and we probably would have greater fatalities as a result, if we had that policy alone.

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: I still believe it’s the right strategy at the moment. It needs to be reviewed but I think whatever strategy you put in place for this particular fire at the time nothing could have prepared anyone for what we faced.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Could anything have helped to prevent the tragedy?

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: I don’t believe so, not this particular tragedy. We had as many fire trucks out here and, and in fact probably if I had more fire trucks at my disposal at the time I might have put, put them lives in danger and lost more, lost firefighters, I’m sure I would have lost firefighters.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Were people warned early enough?

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: I think that, the situation was that the fire came that quick that the warnings and media etcetera just couldn’t keep up where the fire was, I think you just couldn’t keep up with it, it was unbelievable.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Having seen what you’ve seen, could anything have prevented this catastrophe?

JOHN BRUMBY, PREMIER OF VICTORIA: I guess that’s the question the Royal Commission will, will ask and it’ll look at all of the issues, you know whether the community was ready enough, whether individuals were ready enough, whether the warning systems were good enough, whether government policy was right, whether we should have had tougher vegetation controls.

I mean I think, all of those issues will be there for the commission to consider and I want everybody to have their say, so I don’t want to prejudge that, um I’ve made this point previously.

If you were, you know if you were going to evacuate everybody who was potentially at risk on Saturday you would have evacuated somewhere between half a million and a million people and I don’t know how you’d get them out.

I don’t know where you’d put that many people, frankly you can’t do that.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Joe Milbourne, having dodged the burning trees and escaped death through little more than good luck, is one of those determined to argue for real change.

JOE MILBOURNE, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: I think if fire breaks were created along the roads and there was nothing there for it to burn, you could drive out, it’s as simple as that. There’s four cars just down here and I don’t know how many people died there, I think six perished.

If the road had been wide enough so that the trees couldn’t fall onto the road, they’d have driven out. It’s as simple as that, but tourists like to see nature just there, outside their window and its beautiful when there’s no danger but when danger strikes it’s a death trap.

I think the tourists would get used to having cleared areas on the sides of the roads after a little while and still appreciate the nature, it’s just a bit further away and we’d all live a lot safer.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: All this week, quietly and painstakingly, forensic investigators have been carrying out one of the saddest jobs in the world, identifying the bodies of the victims.

Leading Senior Constable Peter Cox was one of those who went out on Sunday to help identify the dead.

SEN. CON. PETER COX, DISASTER VICTIM IDENTIFICATION TEAM: We were in the Strathewen area and we just saw a number of bodies which had quite simply had not been able to get away, the people had not been able to get away from the fire and they were unfortunately deceased.

It was pretty heartbreaking ’cause you could see what they were trying to do and unfortunately couldn’t do anything with it.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: On Monday Senior Constable Cox and his team went out again, this time, to Kinglake.

SEN. CON. PETER COX, DISASTER VICTIM IDENTIFICATION TEAM: We drove up the hill on the, on Monday morning and it was again, it was similar to the day before.
Just devastation, the fire, the intensity of the heat and so on just must have been incredible and you can see why people couldn’t get away from the fire.

There was just nowhere they could go.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The task of locating and identifying the victims is an enormous one, involving 15 teams and around 50 crime scene examiners.

And tragically, many of the bodies are unrecognisable.

SEN. CON. PETER COX, DISASTER VICTIM IDENTIFICATION TEAM: Some of them are burnt to the point of, there’s very little remaining of them which is going to make the DVI process extremely hard because the main fields we use which is odontology, DNA and so forth in, in some cases it mightn’t be able to be used, so which is going to make it very hard to determine who’s who.

(Excerpt of News footage)

BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: The fires were everywhere, my Dad was involved in a four car collision there, and I couldn’t get him out, he’s still dead in the car there.


QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Senior Constable Cox is one of those helping families to reach some kind of closure, by locating and identifying the son or daughter, or mother or father who has died.

That may bring some comfort, as will a renewed sense of community in the towns that have suffered so terribly.

But it doesn’t dispel the fear that a similar, apocalyptic event, could happen again.

DR KEVIN TOLHURST, FIRE ECOLOGY SPECIALIST, MELBOURNE UNI: What we’re seeing within, in the last couple of decades is that these events are becoming more common so instead of being a one in 40 year event they’re becoming a, almost a one in five or one in 10 year event.

So I think it’s a bit scary.

KEN WILLIAMSON, CAPTAIN, WHITTLESEA CFA: I think this is a once in a lifetime fire. God help us if it isn’t. God willing we don’t see another one.

SUE HOLMES, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: There’s a bond between the people here, a bond that we’ve survived. We got some, through something that I hope nobody ever, ever has to experience. We lived through that and by God I’m glad we did.


One thought on ““…I finished .. about 8 o’clock that night and there had been no reports at that stage of casualties…””

  1. According to the CSIRO, fuel load is the most critical component in fire intensity. Fire intensity increases as the square of the fuel load. Treble the fuel load and the fire intensity will increase nine-fold! So I was interested in Dr Tolhurst testimony at the Royal Commission on the fuel loads at the time of the Victorian Bushfires. I expected him to come out with fuel load figures for the bushfire affected areas. I was surprised to learn that there were no hard figures. He gave a guestimate based on the vegetation type which he had measured some 10 years ago! At the end of one of the longest drought since Federation nobody had done any sampling of the fuel loads – neither the DSE, the CFA , Forestry or the Academics!! The CFA used a ball park figure of 12 ton/hectare whilst Tolhurst estimated a figure of 25 tonne/hectare. Some reports claimed a figure of 45 tonnes/hectare. The lowest/highest estimates differ by a factor of 4 which means that fire intensity estimates varied by a factor of 16! I suspect it was not politically correct to measure fuel loads.
    Its interesting to see how the senior bureaucrats of the DSE and CFA have tried to downplay the importance of fuel loads, claiming that the fire conditions were so extreme that hazard reduction burning would not have made any difference. If this was the case, ie the fires were uncontrollable, then why was this not conveyed to the people in the affected areas with the advice that evacuation was the only safe option! Seems we have a case of cognitive dissonance amongst some people.

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