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Royal Commission into Black Saturday begins -

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Reporter: Rachael Brown

PETER CAVE: The Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires is sitting for the first time

One-hundred-and-seventy-three people were killed, and more than 2,000 homes were destroyed in the

The World Today's Rachael Brown is at the Royal Commission, and joins us now.

Rachael, I understand that counsel assisting the Commission, Mr Jack Rush QC, began by painting a
picture of the unprecedented fire conditions that led to Black Saturday.

RACHAEL BROWN: A devastating picture actually, he spoke of a decade of drought, a record low
rainfall figure. Temperatures - Victorians sweltered through three days of 40 degree temperatures,
wind speeds were up to about 100km an hour.

He spoke of the McArthur Forest Fire Index which measures how dangerous situations are and an index
of over 50 is considered to be extreme. But he said on that day, on Black Saturday, in fact, the
index was between 120 and 180.

JACK RUSH: The McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index predicted that not only would 7 February have the
potential to be the worst day on record for bushfires, but the intensity of the potential fires
would be such that it could not be imagined by our generation.

Not only the intensity of the fire, the heat of the fire, but its speed was phenomenal. Fire
spotted kilometres ahead. Fireballs seemingly of atomic force came before the fire. The fire did
not discriminate between buildings of brick, timber or other construction.

Such fires create their own weather and are beyond the most sophisticated attempts to control them.
The evidence will demonstrate people made decisions in relation to stay or go with an unrealistic
optimism having regard to the nature of these fires.

PETER CAVE: Mr Jack Rush QC. Right at the heart of this investigation is that very contentious
stay-or-go policy.

Is that your understanding that will be the focus?

RACHAEL BROWN: That's correct Peter as you heard Mr Rush QC just say then it will be pivotal to the
first block of hearings which will run for at least eight weeks. He mentions the potential for
confusion and misunderstanding of this bedrock policy and as everyone would remember to that day,
for many people living in areas that were topographically just impossible to fight this fire,
perhaps that stay option should not have been there.

Mr Rush QC mentioned the evacuation policies of some parts of Europe and the US, he cited the
Californian fire in October 2007 in which more than 13 homes.. sorry, more than 3,000 homes were
destroyed but only ten people were killed.

So one of the things that may come out of this commission is perhaps we need an evacuation policy
for some parts of Victoria. Within that it things like refuges will also be considered, apparently
there isn't any refuge in Victoria that meets CFA standards where community members can go.

And also planning regimes; Mr Rush QC said there are bureaucratic and complex laws regarding
vegetation clearing and also our current building standards don't take in, into things, into

PETER CAVE: Rachel even before the hearing began this morning, there was already some controversy,
can you take us through that?

RACHAEL BROWN: That surrounds the Commission's rule that only those whose conduct will come under
scrutiny during the hearing can give evidence. Already federal Liberal MP Fran Bailey has come out
saying that the refusal to allow some survivors to appear was a slap in the face.

I've spoken to the Gippsland Independent, the Independent Member for Gippsland East Craig Ingram
this morning and he's been denied to appear on behalf of the Wildfire Task Force. And Kim Tobin QC
representing people affected by fire that was caused by potentially power issues; like conductor
failing or falling down.

He's still waiting to hear whether he can appear but that's confused slightly by the fact there's a
class action in regards to the fire that started, potentially in Kilmore East because of alleged
line coming down.

Justice Teague devoted most of his opening to this issue and invited people to make formal
submissions but he also noted that there's only four months to produce an interim report before he
delivers the formal report by the end of July next year.

BERNARD TEAGUE: We plan to meet those deadlines. We can only do so by limiting the issues that we
address and by dealing with the more critical issues first. Our focus will be primarily on issues
that will address how a better and safer environment can be created for Victorian communities.

PETER CAVE: And that was Justice Bernard Teague at the Royal Commission this morning, our reporter
there was Rachel Brown.