Man appears in court on 191 charges linked to Black Saturday fire

Brendan Sokaluk, 39, appeared on Tuesday in Melbourne Magistrates’ Court in Australia via video link from prison. He is facing 191 charges related to one of the fires that burned across Victoria on February 7, including 10 counts of arson causing death, intentionally causing a bushfire, criminal damage, recklessly causing injury, and possessing child pornography. 

The Magistrate set a pretrial hearing date for May 31, where 610 witnesses are expected to testify over six weeks. The hearing will determine if there is enough evidence to begin a jury trial.

Numerous fires burned in Victoria on February 7, Black Saturday, killing 173 people and destroying more than 2,000 homes. Mr. Sokaluk is charged with setting one of the fires which killed 10 people.

 

Australia fires: spot fires occurred 21 miles ahead

The royal commission that is investigating the Black Saturday fires of February 7 in Australia was told by wildfire behavior expert Dr. Kevin Tolhurst that spot fires occurred a record 35 kilometers (21 miles) ahead of the main fire.  Dr. Tolhurst also had some other interesting observations about fire behavior during the fires. Two examples are spot fires occurring off the flanks of a fire, and researchers studying fire behavior of small fires and extrapolating that to assume fire behavior on large fires would be similar. The latter was an issue during the 1988 Yellowstone fires when crown fire behavior did not match the existing prediction models.

Here is an excerpt from The Australian:

Dr Tolhurst said researchers had developed “warped ideas” about bushfire behaviour because they had studied comparatively small fires. This had flowed through to training of fire fighters and advice given to the public. 

Dr Tolhurst, who has studied extended video of the February 7 fires, said most people expected a fire front that was like a “wave of fire”, which would pass in a matter of minutes. But during the Black Saturday disaster fire activity had lasted for hours in some cases, with up to an hour when radiated heat remained a danger. 

“There’s no one front of fire,” Dr Tolhurst said. “It’s not a continuous wave of fire going through.” 

The strong wind change caused by the arrival of a cold front late in the afternoon of Black Saturday created a “horror situation”. 

“That’s the worst situation you can have,” Dr Tolhurst said. 

Although cold fronts can bring cooler conditions, bushfires burn just as intensely for a number of hours after their arrival. The change in wind direction to a southerly or south-westerly will “blow out” the eastern flank of any fire burning at the time, pushing it in a new direction on a much wider front. 

The size of the new fire front and the speed it travels will “catch people out”, Dr Tolhurst said. 

He said 80 per cent of the damaged caused by bushfires in Victoria occurred after the arrival of a cold front and change in wind direction. Dr Tolhurst said the Black Saturday fires produced huge convection columns and pillars of smoke that made them burn more intensely. 

The convection columns caused air to be sucked into the fires at ground level, creating localised cyclonic winds of up to 120kph and snapping trees off three or four metres above the ground. Higher winds created by fires could carry smoke and embers in a direction different from the prevailing wind that was driving the main fire front. This meant spot fires could occur not just ahead of the main front, but off the fire’s flank. On Black Saturday spot fires occurred up to a record 35 kilometres (21 miles) ahead of the main fire, Dr Tolhurst said. 

It also made it difficult attempt to judge whether a fire was coming towards you by looking at the direction the smoke was blowing. Someone in the path of the fire could be “in the clear” in terms of seeing smoke. 

 

Australia's extreme fire behavior on Black Saturday

From The Australian:

THE climatic conditions leading to the Black Saturday bushfires were so extreme that fuel reduction would not have made any difference, a leading scientist has said.

David Karoly, from the School of Earth Sciences at Melbourne University, told a seminar last night the climatic conditions experienced in Victoria on February 7 were unprecedented, with temperatures so high the soil caught on fire.

Professor Karoly said the devastated area northeast of Melbourne had experienced a 12-year drought before the fires, which had already reduced the fuel load. “But fuel reduction burning would have made no difference. The fires would have been uncontrollable with minimal amounts of fuel.”

He said the fire was so intense that bare soil burnt in some places, and there were reports of the humus in ploughed ground burning.

“We had record high temperatures, a record heatwave two weeks earlier and record low rainfall. We also had record low humidity,” he said.

The previous three years had been so dry the region had effectively missed one year’s rain. The area was also experiencing an unprecedented sequence of days without rain.

“The preceding heatwave from the 28th to the 30th of January, when Melbourne had three days above 43C, was also unprecedented,” Professor Karoly said. “That heatwave would have kiln-dried everything.”

On the McArthur fire danger index, Black Friday 1939 was rated 100. Ash Wednesday in 1983 was rated 120, but in southern Victoria on February 7 this year there were unprecedented ratings of between 120 and 190.

The unprecedented climatic conditions of February 7 also showed up the shortcomings of bushfire modelling.

Kevin Tolhurst, from the School of Land and Environment at the University of Melbourne, said: “One of the things that has been shown to us with the February 7 case is our understanding of the propagation of wildfire is not well-described.”

He told the seminar that while they predicted the extent of the fire “pretty well” using their models, “it is the mechanism of how they get there that is not well understood”.

He said that information was imperative for everything from planning the design of houses to the decisions people make on whether to leave or stay and fight a bushfire.

Dr Tolhurst said fire modelling had been two-dimensional, but fire was a three-dimensional process. “The way the fire interacts with the atmospheric conditions isn’t currently accounted for in an adequate way in our fire behaviour models.”

 

Australia examines its "stay or go" policy

From The Australian:

The Victorian Government was repeatedly warned of potentially fatal problems with its “stay or go” bushfire policy, including that people planning to go would not leave early enough and that those preparing to defend their homes were badly informed and ill-prepared.

Even the Country Fire Authority’s own research before Black Saturday showed a “significant proportion” of people in bushfire-prone areas had not adequately planned how to respond to a fire.

Problems with the stay or go policy, which encourages people to stay and defend their properties or leave early on days of increased threat, will be a prime focus of the Victorian bushfires royal commission.

Counsel assisting the commission, Jack Rush QC, has flagged that forced evacuations in areas considered indefensible might have to replace the policy after it apparently failed on February 7 when 173 people were killed.

Mr Rush told the opening of the inquiry on Monday that the stay or go policy was potentially confusing and open to misunderstanding.

An inquiry into bushfire preparedness by Victoria’s auditor-general warned that many people in fire-prone areas were poorly informed about risks, had dangerous misconceptions and were not ready to face a bushfire.

“A significant number of residents in wildfire-prone areas have not undertaken essential preparedness steps, have potentially dangerous knowledge gaps about fire behaviour and are planning inappropriate survival strategies,” the auditor-general concluded.

The inquiry found CFA advice to residents planning to go that they should leave before 10am on days of high fire danger was being widely ignored, with fewer than 5per cent saying they planned to leave that early. About 25 per cent of residents said they would wait until told to leave by emergency services, despite the fact that emergency services did not give such warnings during bushfires.

“If residents are relying on emergency services to tell them when to evacuate, this could be a fatal misunderstanding,” the auditor-general warned.

The report handed to the government in 2003 also found that in some areas many residents “held incorrect beliefs or knowledge that may lead them to make household survival plans that could place them in danger”.

Research commissioned by the CFA before the 2007-08 fire season found 56 per cent of residents wrongly believed a fire truck would be there to defend their homes and 51 per cent thought a firefighting aircraft would come to their aid.

Those “unrealistic” beliefs persisted, despite the CFA giving public warnings that it could not guarantee such help. 

 

Followup on Australia's Black Saturday fires

Death toll reduced

Originally placed at 210, the total number of fatalities in the February Black Saturday fires in Australia has been reduced to 173.  This is due primarily to some remains being found to be animal bones and others thought to be from multiple victims were actually from the same person.

Reporter’s personal account of Black Saturday

Gary Hughes, a reporter for The Australian, has written a gripping account of how he and his wife escaped their house as it burned around them, and then how they coped in the four days that followed.  Here is an excerpt, but you should read the entire article HERE.

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Surreal. That’s the term we and other survivors like us will begin to use in the days and weeks to come. But this first morning I grope unsuccessfully with a still-numbed mind for the right word to describe what is happening to us.

There have been brief snatches of exhausted sleep haunted by fiery images playing through my mind like an endless video loop. They call it “ember attack”, but the term nowhere near describes the terrifying reality.

On that endless video loop the hail of glowing demons fly at us relentlessly out of the artificial darkness of the smoke. We are trapped, eternally flailing at the embers with wet towels as they hunt for us through every tiny crack and crevasse of our house.

This first morning, having escaped from our house after it was engulfed and consumed by the Black Saturday firestorms, we are still driven by adrenalin. In coming days that adrenalin surge will end, replaced by waves of intense weariness that will plague our efforts to struggle through this first week. But today, adrenalin is our friend.

Wrapped in numbness and disbelief, our priorities are dictated by necessity. We leave the security of the relative’s house where we found shelter the night before to seek medical treatment for superficial burns and smoke inhalation. We had stayed huddled in our burning hilltop home of almost 25 years in St Andrews, just south of Kinglake, until the flames and toxic smoke left us with a choice between staying and certainly dying, or probably dying outside from radiant heat on the run to the car.

But the deepest injuries, as we will quickly discover, are not physical. That run for our lives had been so desperate that we escaped with virtually nothing, not even loose change. The firestorm has stolen our identities, destroying the plastic cards that define who you are in our computerised, cashless world. We are non-people. With cash provided by relatives and wearing borrowed clothes we buy basic necessities such as underwear, a razor, toothbrushes and toothpaste. I am amazed at how little we really need.

I obtain a replacement SIM card and using an old, borrowed mobile telephone I reconnect to the outside world. It’s a move I’ll regret in coming days.

How the Australian fires unfolded

The Australian newspaper has a very interesting, lengthy article about how the “Black Saturday” fires developed and were fought–including some behind the scenes activities in the “war room”. Here is an excerpt.

BACK in the war room, no one knew what had happened in Wandong. They had been alerted to the existence of the fire at Kilmore East but it was one of many fires that had suddenly sprung up around the state and were demanding their attention.

There was a new one near Bendigo, one near Beechworth, one near Coleraine, another near Horsham and reports of one near the community of Churchill in Gippsland in the state’s east, near to where arsonists had lit several recent fires.

Even so, Waller, Rees and Esplin say they had a sense of dread early on about the Kilmore fire. “I knew that was a dangerous place for a fire,” Esplin says. ‘A lot of tree changers had moved into areas around there and it is difficult fire-fighting country. I had a feeling of ‘Here it comes’.”

Waller says: “As soon as we saw that Kilmore fire, in a very short time we knew we had a real problem. It was running towards populated areas. You could run a ruler along where it was going to run – you knew straight away.”

The ruler along the map showed the fire was heading directly for Kinglake.

What the war room did not yet fully understand was that this fire was behaving like none other they had experienced. It was much faster, much larger and was behaving more like a series of fireballs than a cohesive fire.

The combination of steep hills – which can double fire speed – with howling winds and a temperatures in the mid-40s were turning the Kilmore fire into a monster.

From this moment, and for the rest of what would become known as Black Saturday, the bulk of the CFA’s fire warnings being relayed on ABC radio trailed the reality on the ground. They came too late to alert many of the communities in its path.

no one was watching the progress of the East Kilmore fire more closely that Jason Lawrence, the 35-year-old CFA incident controller at Kangaroo Ground, who was responsible for shifting fire trucks and tankers around those communities near Kinglake.

Almost immediately, Lawrence knew he was powerless to do anything. “It moved through with such ferocity that there was nothing the local brigades could do,” Lawrence says.The size and speed of the blaze meant decisions about the deployment of fire trucks would have to be made on the ground by each individual CFA town chief. But with the growing confusion about the fire’s progress, they were given no clear warnings of its arrival.

This was not how the system was supposed to work.