11 May 2009

Fire chief warned of severity of Black Saturday

10:45 pm on 11 May 2009

The chief officer of Victoria's Country Fire Authority says he warned that 7 February would be one of the worst days for fires in the Australian state's history, the bushfires royal commission has been told.

The commission is undertaking a rigorous examination of the events and circumstances of Black Saturday, 7 February, that resulted in the deaths of 173 people and destruction of more than 2,000 homes and properties.

The first day of the public hearing began on Monday.

The commission will consider the official response and whether adequate warning systems were in place. It will also look at a controversial plan to change the law to force people to leave their homes when bush fires approach.

Country Fire Authority chief officer Russell Rees told Jack Rush, QC, that two days before Black Saturday he had compared the predicted weather for 7 February to 16 February 16, 1983, the day of the Ash Wednesday fires when 75 people died in Victoria and South Australia.

"They indicated that February 7 had the potential to be worse in every aspect," Mr Rees said.

Mr Rees said the CFA's fire index - a system designed to measure fire severity on a rating of 0 to 100 - showed that a grassland fire in western Victoria around Ballarat was around the 300 range on Black Saturday.

On the factors taken into account, such as the last rainfall, the level of humidity, the wind speed and temperature - the fire danger on that day "went off the scale," he told the hearing.

The commission will hand down an interim report on the fires by 17 August. A final report is due by July 2010.