Fatal 2013 Gippsland blaze sparked by man lighting paper in his yard
The aftermath of the bushfire that hit the Victorian Gippsland town of Seaton. (ABC News: Tony Nicholls)
The Victorian coroner has ruled a fire, which killed a man in eastern Victoria six years ago, spread from a fire lit by an Aberfeldy resident the day before the fire ravaged several Gippsland towns.
Stanley Hayhurst, 84, died in his car when a fire, which started near Aberfeldy, north of Moe, spread out of control through Seaton in the early hours of January 18, 2013.
- An 84-year-old man died in a bushfire that took two months to bring under control
- The blaze was started after a man lit papers in his backyard at Aberfeldy
- The dead man was described as a “beloved and doting grandfather”
The bushfire burnt 87,000 hectares, destroyed 22 homes near Seaton, Dawson and Glenmaggie, killed around 180 head of livestock and took two months to be brought under control.
Earlier this month acting Victorian coroner Iain Treloar West handed down his inquest findings into Mr Hayhurst’s death, after hearings in September 2018.
Mr West found the Gippsland bushfire, which killed Mr Hayhurst, spread from a fire lit by Grahame Code and his 13-year-old son on their Aberfeldy property on January 17, 2013.
The coroner said Mr Code lit a fire to burn papers in his backyard around 10:00am the day before the bushfire ripped through a series of Gippsland towns.
Mr Code later reported the Aberfeldy bushfire when he saw smoke about one kilometre from his property.
Mr West found “the cause and origin of the Aberfeldy bushfire was the fire ignited by Mr Code and his son … which rapidly spread across Donnelly’s Creek Road and into surrounding bushland”.
Coronial finding differs from earlier court judgement
In 2013, Mr Code appeared in the La Trobe Valley Magistrates Court charged with five offences, including recklessly and unlawfully lighting a fire without a permit.
Magistrate Peter Mellas said the fire lit on the Code property had spread, and although the fire lit by Mr Code did not cause the larger Aberfeldy blaze, Mr Code was complacent on that day.
During the committal hearing, the prosecution dropped the more serious charge against Mr Code of recklessly causing a bushfire.
Mr Code pleaded guilty to lighting a fire without permission and he contested the accusation he had not taken reasonable care.
He was convicted and fined $2,500.
Coroner says Gippsland fire ‘unique and unprecedented’
Mr Hayhurst, died when a bushfire hit Seaton, in Victoria’s Gippsland region, on January 18, 2013. (Supplied)
At the September coronial hearings into Mr Hayhurst’s death, Mr Code’s lawyers presented evidence that a separate fire was started at another nearby location at Cheops.
Mr Code’s legal team argued the Cheops fire joined up with the original fire on the Codes’ property, and caused the fatal bushfire.
They also argued the Cheops fire could have been solely responsible for the fire that caused Mr Hayhurst’s death.
However the coroner dismissed this argument saying “there was no direct or expert evidence in respect of the circumstantial alternatives”.
Mr West said, “on the balance of probabilities”, he accepted the evidence of Les Vearing, a fire investigator with the then Department of Sustainability and Environment.
Mr Vearing, who has 25 years’ experience in bushfire investigations, told the inquest that modelling plus physical and photographic evidence showed the fire lit by Mr Code spread to cause the larger blaze.
The coroner said the Aberfeldy fire was “unique and unprecedented in its unpredictability and rate of spread”.
The report also said there was no consensus among fire experts about why the fire spread at the rate it did.
The coroner said Mr Hayhurst was a “beloved and doting grandfather”, who had spent Christmas 2012 with his family before returning to his Seaton home.
Neighbours saw his house on fire around 5:00am on January 18, 2013 and his body was found 12 hours later, in the driver’s seat of his vehicle parked in front of his burnt-out home.