Page last updated at 09:25 GMT, Monday, 20 April 2009 10:25 UK

Australia bushfire inquiry opens

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Ruins of a fire-hit home in Mudgeegonga, Victoria, Australia, 10 February 2009
Forensic investigators have been sifting through the ash-ridden remains

Victims of February's bushfires in Victoria have complained they are being locked out of a public inquiry into the worst disaster in Australian peacetime.

The Royal Commission into the fires has opened in Melbourne, the state capital, but victims' groups say they are being denied a voice.

There is also anger that the initial focus of the inquiry is the response to the fires rather than what caused them.

The Black Saturday bushfires killed 173 people and destroyed over 2,000 homes.

In announcing the Royal Commission into the worst bushfires in Australia's modern history, the state government said it would allow everyone to have a say - that it would be a "peoples' commission".

But groups and lawyers representing hundreds of victims claim they are being excluded.

If you can stop the fires, you don't have to worry about whether you are going to flee

The commission has decided to hear evidence from people whose conduct will come under scrutiny during the inquiry - state officials and the emergency services.

But the victims have argued that the best way to identify the cause of the fires is to hear directly from those who suffered from them; people who lost their relatives and their homes.

The state's leading forestry body has also been denied the right to appear - even though the management of forests and bush land is thought by many to have contributed to the ferocity of the fires.

'Too late'

The commission will initially focus on the government's evacuation strategy - the controversial "stay and defend or leave early policy".

The counsel assisting the commission said that while people knew of the risk, they were not aware the fire would spread at "phenomenal" speed.

"There will be evidence to suggest that accurate or timely information was not available during 7 February 2009," Jack Rush QC said.

He said that evidence would demonstrate that "people remained in their homes unaware of approaching fires, until it was too late".

There is no national standard for bushfire warnings and Mr Rush told the commission that it was unclear who had responsibility for issuing alerts in Victoria.

There has been disquiet among victims' groups that the commission will look primarily at the evacuation strategy.

Some groups have said they would prefer the inquiry to focus on the causes of the fires.

"If you can stop the fires," said one lawyer, "you don't have to worry about whether you are going to flee."

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