Harrietville fires inquest | Lives on the line

STEVEN Kadar spoke of his fears over the handling of the Harrietville blaze two weeks before a falling tree killed him and his teenage colleague Katie Peters.

His still heartbroken mother Jan Kadar yesterday demanded policy changes to protect firefighters “who put their lives on the line every summer”.

The firefighters were killed when a dead, 30-metre-tall mountain ash tree fell onto their ute just after 3pm on February 13 last year.

The Kadar family’s despair at the loss of their son was made clear during yesterday’s opening of a coronial inquest into the deaths of the two seasonal firefighters for the then 

Department of Sustainability and Environment.

Mrs Kadar said the family felt the deaths were caused by a combination of burnt ash forest and high winds, fanned by an app-roaching storm.

She last spoke to Mr Kadar, 34, on February 3.

“Steven had complained about the disorganised manner of withdrawing DSE crews from danger areas when the firefighting conditions worsened,” she said during what was at times an emotional stint in the witness box.

“Steven was angry about how the Harriet- ville-Mount Hotham fires were being managed.”

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The fire was sparked by lightning on January 21 last year and eventually burnt 37,000 hectares during 55 days.

Miss Peters, 19, was spending just her second season with the department when she died.

Mrs Kadar said she had never heard her son “so disturbed” in his nine years of firefighting.

“Steven gave the impression that, in this fire, there was no clear method for evacuating DSE crew from dangerous conditions,” she said.

Katie Peters’ father, Chris Peters, said she had not spoken to him about the danger of working among dead trees.

“But I had conversations with my daughter’s partner, who was in the DSE with Katie, and he wasn’t happy about it,” he said.

“It was said there were two or three close calls before.”

Mr Peters said his understanding was that the DSE, now the Department of Primary Industries and Environment, had documented these close calls.

Mr Peters said he was no expert, but still would never go anywhere near dead mountain ash trees out of fear these could unexpectedly fall.

A senior department manager later gave evidence he was not aware of these close calls, but believed these would still have been acted upon.

Ryan Incoll — a regional manager for environmental natural resources and fisheries with the department — was the situation officer at the Swifts Creek incident control centre during the Harrietville fire.

It was one of two control centres, with the other at Ovens.

Coroner John Olle asked Mr Incoll several times if he would have made it a priority to have staff moved if there was imminent danger posed by dead trees and adverse weather.

Mr Incoll said it was difficult to comment on “hypotheticals”, although he eventually relented.

“If I felt there were extreme risks to the firefighters then I would remove them from the situation,” he said.

Mr Olle asked Mr Incoll if he was aware of any changes in the department’s strategic planning in the wake of last year’s tragic incident.

“It’s very much in the front of people’s minds in terms of what happens on the day,” Mr Incoll said.

The hearing continues today.

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