NSW bushfire inquiry: Likely origin of Werri Berri fire spotted from air

The very early stages of a devastating bushfire were spotted from the air, but crews could not fight it for one key reason.

A burning single tree believed to be the origin of a devastating south coast bushfire was spotted from the air hours after its likely ignition from a lightning strike, a court has been told.

But the Black Summer blaze started in such a remote location crews had to wait for it to spread before they could attempt to extinguish it.

The Werri Berri bushfire went on to ravage more than 27,000 hectares of bushland near Bemboka, NSW, destroying 24 homes as it burned for almost a month before merging with the deadly Badja Forest fire.

It is among the fires and tragic deaths being investigated by state coroner Teresa O’Sullivan as part of the NSW bushfire inquiry.

A Rural Fire Service helicopter crew was scrutinising the Tuross Valley for spot fires on the afternoon of December 29, 2019, when crewman Jake Roarty spotted a plume of smoke rising from the bush at about 5pm.

Mr Roarty told the NSW Coroners Court on Monday that the chopper hovered “pretty much directly above the fire” and circled it nine times.

He said he was “confident” the smoke was coming from a single tree that was alight with flames.

Mr Roarty took photos from the air at 4.57pm and said he reported the fire to RFS special operations when the helicopter returned to Merimbula.

It was not until around 2.30pm the next afternoon that the local brigade received a call to action from a nearby resident, the court was told.

Bemboka RFS brigade captain John Inskip said he had seen the smoke emanating from the dense bushland the day before, but there was no way of getting to it.

“You could see it was inaccessible country, so there was nothing we could do at that particular time,” he said.

“All we could do was wait for the fire to come to us.”

Mr Inskip said the blaze emerged at an area called Yankee’s Gap, north of Bemboka, at some point on December 30.

It was hot and windy, he said, and crews quickly became overwhelmed with spot fires.

The blaze continued to burn for weeks, spreading for kilometres in fire behaviour that was “extreme and anomalous”, according to counsel assisting the coroner Tracey Stevens.

Fire inspector Detective Sergeant Gregory Moon told the court the fire likely started from one of four lightning strikes that hit the area within a minute around 1.29pm on December 29.

Mr Moon said in his view it was not possible the blaze could have ignited from one of several lightning strikes in the preceding two days.

“The evidence of the RFS aerial crew that saw the plume of smoke is very critical because there were no other locations of fire observed in that area,” he said.

It followed that none of the other strikes created an actual fire, he said.

But Darren Howell, a firefighter and authorised fire inspector, told the court while the cause was “most likely” a lightning strike he could not say when it hit.

Mr Howell told the court it was possible for lightning strikes to cause fires that “smoulder undetected for several weeks” before beginning to flame.

Mr Moon agreed it was possible for a lightning strike to leave a tree smouldering for some time, depending on the fuel load.

Asked if he thought it was likely the strike was between December 27 and 29, Mr Howell said: “Unless I was standing on the ground when that happened I couldn’t say yes to that.”

The inquiry continues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *