Tree danger was focus of fire brief

Peter Cobb, centre, travelled from Marysville to help the firefight at Harrietville last year. He gave evidence at the coroner’s inquest yesterday.

Peter Cobb, centre, travelled from Marysville to help the firefight at Harrietville last year. He gave evidence at the coroner’s inquest yesterday.

Coroner John Olle

Coroner John Olle

Graeme Dudley

Graeme Dudley

AN alert about the danger of hazardous trees was one of the key points at the morning briefing on the day two firefighters died at Harrietville last year.

Katie Peters and Steven Kadar died on February 13 when a 30-metre tree fell on their ute, known as a slip-on.

They had been told to evacuate the fireground minutes before the accident after a wind change and conditions made it too dangerous.

Peter Cobb, an assistant operations officer at the blaze on February 13, said he recalled the two key points of the morning briefing were a forecast for storms and the need to be aware of hazards from trees.

Mr Cobb recalled he had reinforced the message about dangerous trees at the briefing.

Barrister John Kelly, representing the Kadar family and the Australian Workers Union, suggested to Mr Cobb: “it’s a bit like sending people to work in a minefield and telling them to be careful of mines”.

Mr Cobb admitted to coroner John Olle there was a struggle in juggling the first priority of firefighter safety with the need to contain a fire.

“There is a conflict there we are looking to manage,” he said.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment’s safety manager Graeme Dudley told the inquest he could not recall being made aware of an incident on January 28, when a tree fell within 30 centimetres of a Mitta crew member.

An incident card, known as a salmon card, had been filled out on the day and handed up the chain on command.

“You don’t even know that a salmon card was issued?” Mr Kelly asked Mr Dudley.

“I don’t recall it,” he said.

“We have thousands of incidents and near misses across the organisation every year.”

He said the department was aware of the dangers of hazardous trees and was working to eliminate the risks.

As part of a $40 million program, the department is trialling purpose-built firefighting vehicles fitted with falling object protection and GPS tracking.

“We are continually working on this issue right across the organisation,” he said.

“Our next problem is people over-relying on them as a means of protection.”

Mr Dudley said the falling object protection on vehicles would not negate the impact of a 20 or 30-tonne tree but would offer protection from smaller trees.

“We haven’t been able to eliminate that risk,” he said.

“We can’t go out there in leopard tanks and drive around.”

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