THE CFA's chief officer did not know that an expert had accurately predicted the spread of the Kilmore fire before it tore through the Kinglake ranges, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
Russell Rees said he had not known that the expected footprint of the fire was being mapped in his office.
"I didn't see it on the day," he said.
He told the commission the fire had been spotting into nearby Strathewen and Pheasant Creek from 3.30pm.
But Kinglake was issued only one CFA warning, talking of imminent threat, at 5.55pm.
The fire went through there between 6pm and 6.30pm.
Forestry expert Kevin Tolhurst, of Melbourne University, had forecast the spread of the Kilmore fire based on infra-red photography taken from the air at 12.33pm, according to counsel assisting the commission, Jack Rush, QC.
At 5.43pm, Dr Tolhurst had produced a map predicting that the fire front could reach as far east as Toolangi in the Kinglake ranges.
At 7.44pm, Mr Rees told radio station 774 he believed the Kilmore fire was "putting enormous pressure" on Kinglake.
He agreed under questioning yesterday that he did not discover the fire had been through Kinglake until some time after his radio comments.
Asked if Kinglake had received the sort of warning he would hope for, he said a warning of imminent threat "isn't for a person to leave their property. It's that the fire is impacting or about to impact."
Mr Rush played a recording of a Kinglake resident, Kay, who rang 774 at 3.18pm saying that smoke had blackened the sky, and that she would be worried if she hadn't known the fire was at Kilmore.
Mr Rush said this was the only mention of Kinglake on the radio before the 5.55pm warning of urgent threat and asked whether Kinglake could have been given an earlier warning of lower urgency to put residents on alert.
Mr Rees replied: "In one sense that person got an alert message. There was smoke in the sky, there was a whole lot of things happening … our message is very clear; that we get and give as much information as we have available for us to get and give but the community have a responsibility as well to obtain as much information and to make judgements."
Mr Rush said that caller Kay said she was monitoring ABC radio and believed the fire was not a problem for her.
Mr Rees replied: "I can't put myself in her place to make that judgement."
Mr Rees said the CFA's incident management database contained 1300 items on Black Saturday and that he was monitoring all fires across the state.
He said he believed the CFA gave adequate warnings "to the best of our abilities" and that "we gave a lot of information prior to the day about upcoming weather conditions".
But he admitted that official warnings "clearly were very, very close in terms of the actual events; in other words, the time frames are very, very tight (in between) getting information and issuing a warning".
He said he knew Black Saturday — which killed 173 people, including 120 in the Kinglake ranges — had the potential to be a worse fire day than Ash Wednesday.
It had a fire danger index of 328, way off a scale that normally went only to 100.
Asked why this figure was not given to the public in warnings before the day, he said it would be of little use as the figure would not mean anything to those who did not understand the index.
The information had been translated into a warning of extreme fire danger, he said.
Mr Rees said there was no statutory responsibility for warnings other than total fire ban declarations.
The CFA's policy is to give "advice" to the community before and during fires.
"If one wants to interpret that advice as a warning, I don't shy away from the language 'warning', but there is much more in what CFA is striving to do than simply to warn …
"That whole community information process is built about a process of education; communities and individuals taking responsibility for their safety and picking the safest option for them, given the predicted weather conditions."
He could not recall whether he saw Dr Tolhurst in the Integrated Emergency Co-ordination Centre in East Melbourne, where Mr Rees was working in concert with the Department of Sustainability and Environment to manage the fires.
Nor could he say whether Dr Tolhurst's projections had been used.
"I would have hoped that information was available to as many people as possible to make wise decisions given … what they knew about the fire at the time may not have been anything like this prediction."
Mr Rush asked whether CFA sirens should be used to warn residents of approaching fires. Mr Rees said the sirens had never been intended as public warning systems and had been replaced by pagers to summon firefighters. Audible warnings had "severe limitations".
Mr Rees said his job on February 7 was to keep the Minister for Emergency Services informed and to ensure co-ordination across agencies.
The CFA's state duty officer and state co-ordinator reported to him, he said, and he was involved in decisions about moving resources.
"In relation to direct management of fires, that takes place at a lower level, at all the incident control centres," he said. "I wouldn't decide the strategic or tactical response."
The commission was shown dramatic video footage of huge clouds of smoke pouring down the main street of Kinglake, accompanied by noises like claps of thunder, as cars, utes and even a bus drove into town.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.