The speed and intensity of the bushfires that engulfed parts of the Mountains on October 17, 2013 were so severe that they were simply uncontrollable, an inquiry heard on Monday.
Fanned by wind gusts of up to 100 kmh on a hot and dry day, the two fires - which possibly both started when falling trees hit power lines - took hold within minutes and went on to destroy a total of 203 homes and damage another 286.
“Fortunately, and remarkably, neither fire led to any loss of human life,” counsel assisting, Ian Bourke SC, told the inquiry in his opening address.
“This appears to have been due in part to good luck and in part to the fact that both fires commenced during daylight hours, which assisted the efforts of police, firefighters and other emergency personnel in evacuating people from homes, hospitals, schools and other places.
“While it is extraordinary that no lives were lost, the emotional impact on [those] who lost their homes and other property and, in some cases, their pets, should not be underestimated.”
The inquiry, being held before coroner Fiona Toose at Katoomba, will investigate the cause and origins of the fires. Ms Toose will also consider the feasibility of reducing fuel loads around overhead power lines, of insulating the lines or the possibility of putting them underground in bushfire prone areas.
Although there were two separate fires - one at Mt Victoria and one in Winmalee-Yellow Rock - the inquiries are being heard together because of the similarities between them: notably, they both started on the same day and there is evidence to suggest that both may have been caused by falling trees or branches dropping on to power lines.
Thursday, October 17, dawned hot, very hot, Mr Bourke said. At 6am, the NSW Rural Fire Service predicted a severe bushfire risk for the greater Sydney region.
At about 12.15pm, Roland Clarke, a Mt Victoria resident, was driving along Mt York Road when he saw a small fire on the western side. He called 000 and firefighters were there in less than 10 minutes.
“Although [they] had some initial success in controlling this fire ... it eventually jumped into bushland on the eastern side of the road, where it became a fast-moving inferno which that day destroyed or damaged houses in St Georges Parade and the Darling Causeway and continued to burn through bushland for more than three weeks,” Mr Bourke said.
Nine houses were destroyed in Mt Victoria.
About an hour later, at 1.25pm, Marilyn Stubbs, a resident of Linksview Road, Springwood, heard a “twang” and a “crackling” sound and saw that a tree from the house next door had fallen onto overhead powerlines. There was also a small fire nearby, which she reported to 000.
Again, emergency personnel arrived quickly but were “helpless” in the face of the flames, Mr Bourke said.
Detective Brendan Bayliss, who was working to evacuate people, described driving into Singles Ridge Road.
“I saw a number of RFS and FRNSW trucks parked fighting fires to premises on the southern side of the street. The sky then became black, reducing my visibility to almost nil. Due to the danger I made a decision to proceed no further ... turning into a driveway to turn the police vehicle around.
“[Colleague] Detective Clancy got out ... to direct me, as I could not see due to the smoke. Day had turned to night.”
The fire destroyed 194 homes in Winmalee and Yellow Rock. Financial losses have been estimated at around $170 million. Springwood Hospital was evacuated as were a number of nursing homes and several hundred children from schools.
Both fires burnt for weeks. The Mt Victoria fire was officially declared out on November 11 and the Springwood fire on November 13.
The inquiry continues all week.