Harrietville fires inquest | Safety is a priority, court told

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I'd never felt so unsafe, firey tells inquest

Shouts, a crash, then devastation

SAFETY officers working beside firefighters as they battle blazes could help warn crews of impending dangers.

Now retired Parks Victoria officer Terry Kingston suggested this yesterday at an inquest into the deaths of firefighters Katie Peters and Steven Kadar.

Coroner John Olle had asked Mr Kingston — a firefighter for several decades — if he had any ideas on how to tackle safety at the fire.

“I think the way to handle this is to have a safety officer with each sector of the fire,” he said.

“That might help the situation.”

Mr Olle then asked Mr Kingston if he thought overarching management strategies for tackling a large fire as the Harrietville blaze in turn created pressure on firefighters “on the ground”.

“It’s a pressure,” Mr Kingston said.

“But all our guys think of safety first.”

Mr Olle said Mr Kingston’s safety officer suggestion was “very worthwhile” and could be given further consideration during the inquest.

Mr Kingston was working as a safety advisor during the Harrietville fire, which eventually burnt 37,000 hectares during 55 days.

His job involved overseeing incident shift plans and required him to answer directly to the fire incident controller.

On the day Miss Peters and Mr Kadar died, Mr Kingston began his day by presenting the safety briefing for the day at the Harrietville CFA shed, then went to the incident control centre at Ovens.

The inquest has heard how the briefing early on February 13 raised the possibility of storms across the area later that day.

But Mr Kingston said there had been no reports about the weather provided by him through the course of the day.

“There were enough smart people out there to work out what was going on,” he said.

“A lot of those weather cells are only two feet wide.

“They are really difficult to predict, and the exact location.”

Several firefighters have told the inquest this week of their alarm over seeing black storm clouds gathering in the Pheasant Creek Track vicinity early that afternoon.

The fear was winds with such a change could knock over alpine ash trees — many with virtually no root systems — that were killed during the 2003 and 2006 fires.

DEPI field services officer Kyle Small was working with the Tallangatta firefighting crew on February 17.

Mr Small told of how he believed it was “too dangerous” to be doing work along the track that day, especially as the fire had burned past a line created by bulldozers.

“The situation was precarious, ” he said.

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