JIM Baruta was transfixed by the flames bearing down on his house on Black Saturday. Yesterday, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard the chilling survival story of the St Andrews man.
Mr Baruta, whose extensive fire preparations included building a concrete bunker, showed a video he made as the fire roared across the hills towards him.
Early in the video the fire is mostly a wall of smoke in the distance, but as it progresses daylight vanishes, enormous flames appear, trees explode, a neighbour’s house erupts and then suddenly spot fires start on Mr Baruta's lawn. The occasional "mooing" of cows can be heard.
Mr Baruta initially went to put out a spot fire but realised he was at risk and retreated to his veranda. "About two seconds later the fire front hit," he said in his witness statement.
While the video is a remarkable record of the fire’s rapid and horrific progress, it nearly brought the father of two undone. "Because I was concentrating on videoing the fire I nearly got caught out," he said.
Feeling light-headed and exposed, he then attempted the 20-metre walk to his bushfire bunker.
"I was feeling light-headed already and I thought I can’t fall, I can’t stumble, I’ve just got to walk back — don’t run, don’t do anything silly. If I tripped that was it, I wasn’t getting back up," he said.
Fortunately, he was wearing thick woollen clothes that he had ensured were soaking wet and he made it into the bunker and closed the door.
Immediately, smoke came rushing in through the tiny gaps around the door. Flames and leaves were also coming in.
Mindful of a life-and-death balancing act, he emerged after about five or 10 minutes, after the worst of the fire front had passed.
He saw a blackened landscape around him, noticed his house had survived and counted 30 fires that were burning nearby.
For the next three hours he walked backwards and forwards around the house carrying a bucket, putting out fires non-stop on the house and furniture, fences and other objects nearby.
Mr Baruta survived the Black Saturday blaze. Many of his neighbours did not.
Bushfires Royal Commission hearings will be held in rural areas to make it easier for country people affected by the fires to give evidence and attend.
Hearings on the fatal Beechworth fire will be held in Myrtleford over three days from September 14. Two days of hearings will follow in Horsham to examine fires that destroyed a number of houses in the Horsham and Coleraine districts.
Later, hearings will be held in Gippsland on the Churchill fire that killed 11 people and destroyed about 140 homes.
Commission chairman Bernard Teague said the commission wanted to make the country hearings "as accessible to the public as possible".
"We feel it is appropriate that the commission travel to the communities rather than for all the relevant witnesses to have to make the trip to and from Melbourne," he said.
The focus of the country hearings will be for the bushfires that were furthest from Melbourne.
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