A KINGLAKE resident who fought an intense three-hour battle on Black Saturday to save his house, grandchildren and other family members has condemned government authorities for failing to do more fuel reduction in bushland around Kinglake and Toolangi.
Wayne Haggar said he had lived in Kinglake since 2005 and had seen only minimal fuel reduction undertaken in local public bushland in the four years since he moved in to his new house.
"We believed that there wasn’t sufficient fuel reduction, particularly in the state forest. Our property is six kilometres from the Melba Highway intersection. Through the Toolangi forest and through the Kinglake forest we saw very little fuel reduction in the number of years that we’d been there ... so that was a concern to us," he said.
In evidence to the Bushfires Royal Commission yesterday Mr Haggar also criticised his local council, Murrindindi, for its attitude to trees on his property that were within 10 metres of his house and which he believed would be a serious threat in a bushfire.
"We spoke to the council at the time of construction and asked if we could remove the trees and were basically told that if the trees were removed then action would be taken, and they could not be removed," he said.
Consequently, the Haggars kept the trees. And subsequently, when the fire intensely attacked their property on February 7, the trees in question all ignited.
"We were confident in the design of the house to withstand a normal fire ... our concern was while we believed we could save the house, if any of those three trees had been severely damaged during the fire and had fallen with [winds] being southerly, they would have actually fallen on the property or on the house. And of course then to save the house would have been extremely difficult," he said.
When fire struck their property after 5pm on Black Saturday from three different directions, the countless hours of bushfire preparation and the thousands of dollars spent on equipment were severely tested.
The family had implemented a number of design features in the house to minimise risks from bushfire including building on a slab to prevent embers from getting under the floor and building it without eaves — a feature regarded susceptible to ignition. The number of windows facing south was minimised and the cladding was brick to reduce risk. The house had a 98,000-litre water tank.
Mr Haggar also expressed dismay about the lack of official warnings on Black Saturday, saying his family never received a single official warning. The only warning came from a neighbour about 10 minutes before the fire hit, he said.
The combined firefighting efforts of Mr Haggar and his wife, Linda, their daughter and her partner ultimately saved the house. But Mr Haggar said the family had been emotionally scarred by the experience, including their grandchildren.
Mr Haggar told the commission that his grandson, aged 12, was petrified as he sheltered inside the house. "He was simply curled in the foetal position in the house, panicking. I believe that they are able to get some assistance from psychologists etc, but there’s no doubt it’s had an effect on our grandchildren," he said.
In other evidence yesterday CSIRO fire expert Justin Leonard said that seemingly innocuous things nearby houses are often the source of the house’s ignition in a bushfire.
Mr Leonard said these things can ignite and create embers, radiant heat and flames. "A fence, a car, even a rubbish bin, or stored material — are all very common elements found adjacent to houses that might not be readily identified as a key event path leading to significant loss," he said.
Another witness, Mark Chladil from the Tasmanian Fire Service, said building rules needed to be introduced to address the risks associated with building houses in grasslands. He also said grassland fires, which could be devastating, needed to get a greater focus from fire authorities.
"It’s fair to say that fire people would tend to regard grass fires as less important because they’re easier to deal with, because they’re relatively easy to deal with they don’t get the same prominence as forest fires. But to not give them any prominence has been a mistake," he said.
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