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Silence on Black Saturday blaze not good enough

If mistakes were made, we ought to know.

If mistakes were made, we ought to know.

THE people of Victoria deserve an explanation. After 2? years investigating the devastating Black Saturday blaze that killed 40 of the 173 victims, police have decided the fire was not, as first thought, deliberately lit. And that, it seems, is all we're going to find out for now. It's not good enough by half.

A week after the terrible events of February 7, 2009, police said the fire that began at the disused Murrindindi sawmill and went on to destroy Narbethong and Marysville was the work of an arsonist. A report in The Age on February 14 stated: ''Forensic examination indicates the fire was deliberately lit ? Detective Superintendent Paul Hollowood of the Phoenix taskforce said: 'We believe the mill site is ground zero. This was not an attempt to burn down the mill but a deliberate attempt to create a bushfire on a massive scale.' ''

In the months following, the man who first reported the blaze, local CFA volunteer Ron Philpott, said he had been interviewed by police and was considered the prime suspect in the case. He vehemently denied any wrongdoing, going so far as to take a lie detector test on a television current affairs program.

Then, two weeks ago, news filtered out that Victoria Police had changed its mind. In a brief statement, Victoria Police confirmed it ''is not currently focusing on a criminal investigation ? We are unable to make any further comment on the matter as the investigation continues and a brief of evidence will be prepared for the State Coroner.''

In itself, this is good news, lifting the grim spectre of mass murder. But if police know enough to rule out arson, why the refusal to comment? In a week when officers have spoken freely about ongoing gang violence in Melbourne's northern suburbs, why stay silent on events long past? As Marysville doctor Lachlan Fraser told The Sunday Age last week: ''I'd like to see the police be honest and give some consideration to what the community's been through, to have been led to believe that it was due to arson ? You'd like to see them express some regret that they reached that conclusion, and some acknowledgment of the hurt that it's caused the community, as well as the one individual who was a person of interest, Ron Philpott.''

The Sunday Age does not wish to criticise police for reaching a mistaken conclusion in the traumatic aftermath of Australia's worst natural disaster. But it would like to know whether that initial error has resulted in other plausible causes of the fire, such as clashing power lines, not being thoroughly explored. It is known that workers from power company SP AusNet were in the vicinity of the Murrindindi mill at the time. Indeed, it was their testimony that led to Mr Philpott being investigated. There is a sense that police are playing catch-up on the case, only now interviewing witnesses who saw fallen power lines near the mill site.

Even more troublingly, the Bushfires Royal Commission was unable to consider the causes of the Murrindindi fire because of the then ongoing arson investigation. So while the commission delivered findings on the cause of every other Black Saturday fire, it could offer no insight into the second most deadly of the blazes. Not only have those who lost loved ones and homes been left in limbo, any possible bid for compensation has been delayed by years.

Investigators were faced with an awful and near impossible task in the wake of Black Saturday, and it would be hardly surprising if mistakes were made. If they were, though, we ought to know. This is one time when ''no comment'' just won't do.

And another thing...FOR THE first time in history, millions of people have found a way to be both overweight and malnourished. This when interest in food is proliferating, with a swag of TV shows and foodie mags. The idea of ''food porn'' - where people watch cookery shows but don't cook - is hardly new but the internet adds a twist. Like culinary versions of the Crocodile Hunter, a bunch of Aussie blokes have pushed back the new media frontier and launched short cooking shows on YouTube featuring simple, ''man friendly'' recipes. Some have found such success that the men have given up their day jobs. But this blokey, frontier-style cooking could be a good thing. George Orwell once said: ''We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machinegun.''

Perhaps the long run has arrived.


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