PULSE | Harrietville fires inquest - the calm before the storm

Almost three days of near perfect back burning weather was whipped away by a stray storm cell near Harrietville with deadly results, writes NIGEL McNAY.

The Harrietville fires, 2013. Picture: TIMOTHY HEUCHAN

The Harrietville fires, 2013. Picture: TIMOTHY HEUCHAN

HEADLIGHTS from firefighters’ utes struggled to punch a way through a filthy soup of bull dust and acrid smoke.

Pheasant Creek Track was dangerous enough; towering, long-dead alpine ash trees were a menacing, unpredictable threat.

And then there was the fire that had spotted over a containment line.

Almost three days of close-to-perfect back burning weather had been whipped away by a stray storm cell in the sub-alpine forests near Harrietville on February 13, last year.

Crews got the order to pull out — east or west along the track were the only escape routes.

A convoy began, with several crews heading out of the gloom. Others moved to the relative safety of clearings far enough away from dangerous trees.

But barely a few minutes later, a 30-metre dead alpine ash crashed on to one of the Toyota LandCruiser “slip-ons”.

Steven Kadar, 34, and Katie Peters, 19, were killed instantly. Soon after, at 3.37pm, the terrible news was relayed by radio across the fire ground.

An hour earlier, encroaching black skies and lightning strikes at Falls Creek and Mount Buller had firefighters nervous. Some already did not understand why they had not been pulled out by now, given a forecast was put out the night before of likely storms.

Fire ground supervisors were alert to the danger though believed it could be managed; a breeze in the early afternoon on the 13th barely nudged 10km/h, likened by one to the feathering of a jogger’s cheeks. They felt they had the time to move when needed. And they reckoned their crews had the smarts to make their own decision.

WHEN the change hit, creating pockets of howling winds, the air became congested with the muck of a fire that had already burned for three weeks.

The wind speed might have only hit 20km/h, but it was still enough to make many on the fire ground anxious. No chances were taken when the air was moving around erratically like it was — alpine ash and other trees had fallen in previous weeks in the silence of calm skies. 

Cameron McDonald, two days into a five-day stint on the fire line, was talking to task force leader Owen Lord when a “slip-on” drove past. Steven Kadar and Katie Peters, with Katie at the wheel, were heading east along the track, beside areas already back-burned.

“I heard the crack of a tree.” Another heard shouting.

Mr McDonald knew an alpine ash was falling. Soon came the shocking realisation the tree had landed on Katie and Steven’s ute.

“We will have to miss him every day for the rest of our lives.” - JAN KADAR (Steven Kadar's mother)

Eighteen months later, their families and fellow firefighters continue to struggle with the tragedy.

A coronial inquest in Wodonga these past two weeks has heard recollections from crew leaders insisting safety was paramount, a line rejected by several firefighters.

Running through all of this has been the continuing shock and despair at the pair’s loss. 

“It would have been easier for me to say nothing,” Steven’s mother, Jan Kadar, told coroner John Olle, holding a hand over her mouth in a futile attempt to stop her tears.

But she felt she had no choice given her strong desire for effective change. The family wants the now Department of Primary Industries and Environment to implement better procedures for evacuation from fire grounds. 

“All I’ve got left of him is a (computer) memory stick and a (phone) message that he will get back to me.”

THAT summer was Katie Peters’ second as a seasonal firefighter.

Such hard slog was a natural fit for the farm girl from Tallandoon who was part of the Mitta crew. Stretched far ahead were the infinite possibilities of life, starting with university and eventually pursuing a career as a vet.

But for now she just wanted to be out in the bush working hard with her fellow crew members in the then Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE). Having Grace Miller and Emma Smith beside her — Mitta’s first female trio — made it all the better.

Knowing his daughter was heading into these sub-alpine forests full of stands of dead alpine ash, killed during the fires of 2003 and 2006-07, concerned Chris Peters. Katie didn’t talk about it with him, but he knew her partner, also a firefighter, wasn’t happy about the risk.

Katie Peters.

Katie Peters.

Ten days before his death, Steven Kadar spoke of his own concern. When firefighting conditions at Harrietville worsened, he saw the withdrawal of crews as a disorganised mess. He was angry, and had not been so disturbed about tactics in nine years of firefighting.

This was not something his family and workmates remembered as marking the man, a city boy from Sydney who fell in love with Corryong and the Upper Murray. They spoke of his uncanny ability to create calm in people during difficult times.

He was ready for a more simple life with a far greater, more enveloping love: his partner, Leah Edwards. They planned to marry.

REUBEN Tierney spent an hour on the morning of February 13 descending by ropes from a helicopter at the DSE’s Ovens depot.

It was compulsory daily training for Mr Tierney, a member of one of two rappel crews based at Ovens. This was his first summer in the North East after five years as a project firefighter at Halls Gap in Victoria’s west.

By 10.30am, he was heading for the fire area near Beveridge Station, Upper Buckland, close to Pheasant Creek Track and south-west of Harrietville.

Mr Tierney had held misgivings about the Harrietville fire effort from the first night of January 21, when it was declared under control. Lightning began the blaze, which burnt 37,000 hectares in 55 days.

“The following day the fire blew out to greater than 700 hectares … after apparently jumping containment lines.”

Three days before Steve and Katie’s deaths he told someone of how it was “criminal to leave a fire burning” and that “lives may well be lost if the first isn’t put out soon”.

His frustration was at how “those in charge” were going about attacking the fire, carrying out “extremely limited” back burning in the first couple of weeks in the hope rain would drown the flames. He despaired at crews having to back burn while bulldozers brushed-up containment lines.

MR Tierney got to the fire front at 11.30am on the 13th. Together with his work mates, their job was to “round up” a spot-over on the back burn line. On the way in he passed crews who told of the “futility” of trying to contain the outbreak. On previous days, dozers dealt with hazardous trees — not all were alpine ash — but on the 13th the two available dozers were confined to frantic efforts to ready the track further to the north-west for burning.

They met Steven Kadar near the dozer line, about 700 metres from Pheasant Creek Track.

Steven Kadar.

Steven Kadar.

“I heard (rappel crew supervisor) Tony (Grey) on the radio reconfirming what Steven Kadar had said, that we weren’t going to be able to round up the fire or stop it from getting into the gully. And once it got into the gully, it would be too dangerous for crews on foot to work on the fire edge.”

Mr Tierney’s crew headed back up the dozer line towards the track and noticed several mixed-species trees damaged by fire. One fell about 50 metres in front of them.

He then began working as a feller of dangerous trees, working with back-burners as they eventually entered a patch of dead ash. He was cutting into one tree when drops of rain fell, amid a rumbling of thunder in the slight breeze.

Soon after he got in his vehicle and followed Katie and Steven’s slip-on, with one or two others, to the fire edge. Burning had stopped while the storm came through. A few minutes later the tree fell, just 30 metres south-east of where Mr Tierney stopped.

ALPINE ash can be found in great swathes across Victoria’s high country. While eucalypts recover after fire by re-sprouting from trunks and branches, alpine ash is killed by high-intensity fire, like those that swept through in 2003 and 2006-07. 

Some fire crews on the 13th recalled seeing dead alpine ash — trees on a hillside grow on a lean in search of sunlight — fall over and spear hundreds of metres down a slope. Before the deaths, other firefighters had reported near-misses. In one, on January 28, Mr McDonald watched helplessly as a tree fell within 30 centimetres of his vehicle. It was not an ash.

This was reported to management on what is known as a “salmon card”, and senior firefighter and Parks Victoria ranger Craig Hore admitted he did not know why he was not aware of it.

Nevertheless, Mr Hore — commander of the fire’s western division on the 13th — says tree hazards are not ignored.

“The danger of falling alpine ash was an ongoing concern, including before that incident.”

Trees near where firefighters work are continually marked, with a yellow cross, and then removed with a chainsaw or by bulldozer.

Those two large fire events of a decade ago killed many thousands of trees, and the extreme conditions of high winds and heavy snow in the years since would have knocked out most of the weak ones.

“You could say it would have sorted out the men from the boys,” Mr Hore told Mr Olle.

Harrietville fire safety officer Terry Kingston, who has since retired from his job with Parks Victoria, stood by comments he made two days after the deaths that it was a “tragic accident” that could not have been foreseen.

The tree that killed the firefighters, he explained, had fallen in an opposite direction to its lean. Also, the air was thick with dust and smoke that afternoon and the base of the tree, damaged by earlier fires, could not be seen as it was lower than the track.

“That’s the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in a fire.” - CRAIG HORE

DESPITE the risk from dangerous trees, Tony Grey was watchful but held no unnecessary fears.

It was “something to be aware of”, but not necessarily a problem if safety continued to be an “absolute priority”. He admits it’s not a confidence necessarily shared by those under his charge who often only have a couple of years’ experience.

“If guys are adamant they don’t want to go in there that’s fine.”

The expected wind change that afternoon, similarly did not worry Mr Hore, a 29-year veteran with Parks Victoria.

And he strongly held the view that experienced staff on the ground — several carried their own small devices that measured the conditions — had a better idea of reading the changing weather than Bureau of Meterology staff in Melbourne.

The weather forecast on the night of the 12th for storms the next afternoon was included in briefing notes, but not in the same report the next morning. The overall fire commander that week, Tony Long, could not explain why that forecast was missing, but insisted the information was still passed on during the morning briefing on the 13th.

FIREFIGHTER Scott Stow has no doubt though about the dangers crews faced. His anger at safety fears being ignored led to him dumping his chainsaw and storming off.

A veteran colleague, Darryl Jordon, had already decided he “wasn’t hanging around” Pheasant Creek Track because it was so dangerous.

“That’s the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in a fire.”

Edan Brennan was another harsh critic.

The DSE field services officer reiterated how crews should never work downhill from alpine ash. But in that, the Harrietville firefight breached some “golden rules”.

Counsel for the Kadar family John Kelly placed great weight on Mr Brennan’s account.

“Edan Brennan — he’s no marshmallow is he?” he put to Mr Lord, a department planned burning preparation supervisor.

John Olle, who will hear from final witnesses in Melbourne on October 15, also thought highly of Mr Brennan’s evidence. And the Harrietville firefighters? “The bravest of the brave.”

For Jan Kadar, the cost of what did or didn’t happen in the days and weeks leading up to her son’s death is forever present.

“We will have to miss him every day for the rest of our lives.”

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