Backburn may have caused Wye River fire to escape

Christmas Day devastation of the Wye River township, leaked files reveal. 

confidential state government files reveal that three days after a lightning strike on December 19 caused a small, half-hectare blaze to begin near Wye River, Victorian fire officials ordered a controlled burn operation which included the dropping of small fireballs from aircraft.


The full force of the Christmas Day fire at Wye River. Photo: Country Fire Authority

The fact that the backburn operation and associated warnings have not been publicly detailed by the state government or Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley since the Wye Rive fire has prompted accusations of a cover-up from fire-fighting officials and local residents, who are also demanding an independent inquiry.


A helicopter waterbombs the Wye River fire. Photo: tyrorogers_14

It was one of four firefighting options discussed by senior officials and its aim was to allow firefighters to better tackle the still relatively small blaze near Wye River, including by guiding it to more hospitable bushland and to control lines that could be accessed.


Wye River resident Sherryl Smith, who lost her home in the fires says an independent investigation is “absolutely imperative”. Photo: Darrian Traynor

Before the backburn began on the afternoon of December 22, the fire had engulfed an estimated 141 hectares of bushland. After the backburning, the fire spread to about 271 hectares.


Firefighter Anna Cutriss inspects a burnt out car in Wye River on December 27. Photo: Chris Hopkins

The officials also questioned why more effort was not made to control the blaze when it was smaller – in the days before the backburning – and why fuel reduction burning had not been carried out during cooler weather in the previous months or years.


Fire damage to property seen from the air on December 27. Photo: Paul Jeffers

He said the fire was in deep, inaccessible country and it could not be extinguished. He said a decision was made by the incident controller, with support from the regional controller and himself and his team to conduct a burn-out when conditions were milder.


Wye River on Decembeer 27 after the fires rolled through. Photo: Chris Hopkins


It’s from this gorge that strong northerly winds picked the fire up and flicked it over a ridge, causing three spot fires, and onto a path straight to Wye River on Christmas Day, Mr Lapsley said.

“You’ve got to try and bring it and finish it and if you do nothing it creeps around by itself and it ends up in the same spot anyway.

Mr Lapsley said he believed the fire would have done exactly the same thing even if controlled burns were not conducted. He said “every option” to control the fire was taken before the decision was made to burn out.

He said an investigation into the fire by the Inspector-General for Emergency Management would be a sufficient response.

Wye River resident Sherryl Smith, whose home was destroyed, said an independent investigation was “absolutely imperative”.

“We’re going to get more frequent, hotter fires and we need to now put policies in place that deal with that and instead of contain and control, to now extinguish as soon as possible,” she said.

Mr Featherston also questioned Mr Lapsley’s previous public comments that the Wye River fire surged out of control because of the terrain and heavy fuel loads built up over decades.

Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett did not answer questions from Fairfax Media about the backburning, saying it was an operational issue for firefighting authorities. Instead, the minister issued a statement that repeated comments she’d made on January 7. Ms Garrett said that emergency services did an “extraordinary job to safely evacuate hundreds of homes, contain the blaze over many days and ensure that no lives were lost”. 

“Given the significance of the Wye River fire and in line with normal practice, I have written to the Inspector-General for Emergency Management  to look at what lessons can be learnt,” she said on January 7.

But fire officials who spoke confidentially to Fairfax Media said that the Inspector-General did not have the power or resources to undertake a thorough and independent inquiry, similar to that conducted after the Lancefield fire in November, which was started by back-burning.

The damning Lancefield fire inquiry concluded that the controlled burn which started the blaze was inadequately planned, inadequately staffed and that department staff did not properly appreciate the risks associated with conducting the burn.

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