Survivors of the devastating 2019/20 bushfires in NSW are due to share stories of bravery and resilience as a coroner determines the cause of some of the most dangerous blazes.
While previous inquiries have looked into broader issues in the Black Summer, the coronial inquiry that began on Wednesday is set to examine specific events, including the 12 blazes that resulted in 25 deaths.
One blaze – the Badja Forest fire in the state’s south – caused fatal injuries to six people on New Year’s Eve, including Wandella father-and-son Robert and Patrick Salway, before claiming a seventh in late January.
Counsel assisting, Adam Casselden SC, acknowledged each death represented “an incalculable loss” to each person’s family, friends and community.
He also pressed the importance of recognising that the COVID-19 pandemic, coming months after 3000 homes were destroyed or damaged, had left people trying to take shelter “whilst trying to work out how to rebuild their lives [and] where to rebuild their lives”.
Some had gone to borrowed accommodation or hunkered down with families and friends, while others camped in caravans, shed or makeshift shelters on their property, he said.
The inquest, which pending pandemic restrictions will tour the state over nine months, is due to hear from those affected by blazes and of many acts of “kindness, selflessness and bravery” displayed over the eight months.
“Many of the people involved will no doubt say they don’t consider themselves to be brave but the observation of their bravery stands nonetheless,” Mr Casselden said, adding the same was true for stoic survivors and their resilience.
Public submissions on the southern NSW fires had closed but those affected in other parts of the state by the nominated fires can make submissions until October 1.
NSW state coroner Teresa O’Sullivan is expected to hear specific evidence about a link between strategic backburning and the cause of a fire or death.
Evidence is also expected on communication issues related to specific fires in the inquiry’s focus.
While there was “considerable debate” in communities about the extent of hazard reduction, fuel loads were no higher than the 30-year average, Mr Casselden said.
But such extreme conditions, including hot overnight temperatures, meant fire ran through natural firebreaks and hazard reduction areas.
“Fuel load did not affect the spread, intensity and severity of the fires,” he said.
Most of the season’s 11,700 fires had been started by a lightning strike – an outcome that generally causes larger fires and that is more likely in the very dry conditions experienced in the 2019/20 season, Mr Casselden said.
The inquiry was adjourned until September 6, when evidence will be led on the Badja Forest fire and other blazes in the state’s far south.
The court is expected to live-stream the inquiry on its YouTube channel.