NSW bushfire inquest: 25 deaths of firefighters, citizens to be examined

An inquest into the ‘incalculable loss’ of 25 people who died in the Black Summer bushfires has begun in Sydney.

An inquest will examine the “incalculable loss” of 25 people, including seven firefighters, who died as the devastating Black Summer bushfires swept through NSW.

The 2019-20 bushfire season was described as “without doubt one of the most catastrophic on record” by counsel assisting the coroner Adam Casselden SC in his opening address to the NSW Coroner’s Court on Wednesday.

Mr Casselden said across the state 5.52 million hectares were burned, 2476 houses and three schools destroyed, more than 800 million animals killed and some $1.88 billion in damage done, according to estimated insurance claims.

“These figures are important but they cannot capture the human tragedy that sits behind the numbers,” Mr Casselden said.

He noted communities hit hard by bushfires had to deal with the onset of Covid-19 shortly after the season ended, and in some cases, with flooding later in the year as well.

“Thus whilst Covid-19 has affected all of us, it is particularly important to recognise the people who had to try and take shelter during the 2020 lockdown in foreign accommodation,” he said.

“Who bunkered down with family or friends, or who camped out in tents or caravans or sheds or makeshift shelters on their property, while trying to work out how to rebuild their lives, where to rebuild their lives, and how to keep safe from a pandemic.”

Mr Casselden said the bushfire season defied prior knowledge about how bushfires burn and spread in Australia.

The “extreme dryness” of fuel after a prolonged drought, ignition in remote locations and the significant progression of fires through the night and early morning were among the unusual factors of the extreme season, he said.

The inquest will examine the deaths of Gwendoline Hyde, Robert Lindsay, Julie Fletcher, George Nole, Christopher Savva, Barry Parsons, Vivien Chaplain, Russell Bratby, Geoffrey Keaton, Andrew O’Dwyer, Samuel McPaul, Colin Burns, Patrick Salway, Robert Salway, John Smith, Richard Steele, Michael Campbell, David Harrison, Ross Rixon, Michael Clarke, Rick DeMorgan, Paul Hudson, Ian McBeth, Laurence Andrew and John Butler.

The court heard September hearings slated for Cooma and Queanbeyan would have to be held at the Lidcombe court instead due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

More to come

Originally published as ‘Incalculable loss’: NSW bushfire inquest to examine deaths of 25 people

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