Tathra bushfire inquiry day three wrap: Harrowing eye-witness account of 'whirling vortex'

One witness described watching a 'whirling vortex' of fire move quickly towards Tathra. Picture: Alasdair McDonald
One witness described watching a 'whirling vortex' of fire move quickly towards Tathra. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

Eye-witnesses have described how quickly a bushfire turned from smoke to a football field sized fire front in March 2018.

Peter Pullin has lived at Reedy Swamp on the NSW South Coast for 28 years. When he arrived home on the afternoon of the fire, he told the inquiry, there was smoke but soon he saw a "swirling mass of flame" heading towards his car.

With fire at his own driveway, he described watching a "whirling vortex" quickly moving towards Tathra.

"It [the fire] was just jumping from hill to hill," he said. "On top of the hill I could see it all the way down from my residence.

"The only thing is that I couldn't tell anybody in Tathra it was coming."

Mr Pullin said he doesn't carry a watch, and estimated the time to be around "lunchtime" or before 1pm.

Once Mr Pullin realised "the bulk of the fire" had moved, he told the inquiry all he could do was sit on his veranda and watch the fire head "very, very quickly" towards Thompson Dr on the opposite side of the Bega River west of Tathra.

"It didn't take long at all," he said. "It [the fire] was spotting from spot to spot."

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Under the guidance of Deputy State Coroner Elaine Truscott, the three-week long inquiry will investigate the origin and cause of the fire, as well as the management of energy infrastructure, the management of fuel loads before the fire and the response of emergency services.

The fire burned through more than 1000 hectares of forest, causing $63.5million worth of damage, and destroying 56 homes and 35 outbuildings in and around Tathra.

Hamish Dean, who was living on Vimy Ridge Rd at the time, told the inquiry firefighters could do little to stop the fire once it reached the height of trees near the easement where investigators believe the blaze started, as it quickly engulfed Reedy Swamp Rd.

He told the inquiry he saw bus-sized fireballs and firefighters who "couldn't do anything" to stop the fire, which was in what he described as an "overgrown" easement.

"You couldn't really see the powerlines, there wasn't much of a clearing,' he said.

On his way home he was stopped on the road by friend Daniel Sommerville, who lived across the road from the easement, who told him the road ahead was probably impassable due to the fire.

The two returned to Mr Sommerville's home to help him evacuate, gather his pet dog and some possessions, and Mr Dean also called his father who lived in the direction of where the flames were heading.

He said he was "in a pretty panicked state" as the fire moved towards his father's property.

Mr Dean, who is currently in lockdown in Melbourne, lost his patience while giving evidence and prematurely ended his statement.

Deputy State Coroner Truscott said he will likely return as the first witness on Thursday.

Reedy Swamp resident Wayne Ubrihien said he witnessed a fire front of 100 metres at the easement when he arrived at the area investigators believe to be the origin of the fire.

He described seeing "shaking" powerpoles and a "fierce" fire front, parking his car away from any possible falling powerlines.

The resident of nearly 20 years said he saw a "trickle" of fire in the grass under the easement at the time, adding he was "pretty sure" the powerlines were still up.

"We often have power outages out in the bush when trees have gone onto powerlines," he told the inquiry.

Mr Ubrihien said when he first arrived, he did not recall seeing any trees leaning or resting on powerlines.

He returned to his home to prepare it to face the possible fire front, returning to the easement 15 minutes later to see firefighters present.

"It had definitely progressed a long way over the hill," he said.

Alison Christison from Black Range near Bega called emergency services when she saw a large plume of smoke coming from the power pole easement where investigators believe the tragic blaze began on March 18.

"I grew up out there, so I know the area well," she told day three of the inquiry on Wednesday.

"I used to run up and down the hill, so I know it well."

Ms Christison's call at 12.30pm was made just 10 minutes after investigators believe the fire started, likely by dead trees, infested with termites, falling on powerlines.

She quickly ran to the front of her home and snapped a photograph of the smoke with the camera on her phone, followed by further photographs at 12.56pm and 1.21pm.

"It [the fire] was definitely, rapidly moving,' she said.

Ms Christison also said a separate fire, at nearby Kerrisons Ln, was also a concern to residents.