Victoria’s chief health officer has faced intense questioning about why vulnerable Morwell residents were not advised to leave the town during the first week of the fire.
The Hazelwood coal mine fire, in eastern Victoria, burned for 45 days and put out thick, acrid smoke over the nearby town.
Dr Rosemary Lester told the inquiry authorities had developed carbon monoxide protocols and they would have recommended an evacuation of Morwell if the levels had been high enough.
Counsel assisting the inquiry, Melinda Richards, showed the inquiry carbon monoxide readings taken around Morwell on February 16 and said they were high enough to trigger the protocol.
Dr Lester responded they were individual spot readings and were not what was required.
However she agreed when Ms Richards put it to her that “the readings are at a concerningly high level.”
Ms Richards also questioned why vulnerable residents were not told to leave during the first week of the blaze when many residents suffered from respiratory complaints.
“This is advice to the community about what they should do to cope with persistent levels of high smoke,” Ms Richards said.
“It’s very gentle advice that they should consider temporarily relocating.
“Why was that advice not given in the first week of the fire?”
Dr Lester told the inquiry the level of risk was assessed on a day-by-day basis, according to the conditions at the time.
She said the response was proportionate to the risk posed by the smoke.
“We did, from the start, say to the community minimise your time in the smoke, take regular breaks from the smoke if you can, and as time went on we tried to emphasise the fact that we were recommending people to take time out of the smoke.
“So all along we were giving that message to the community.”
The board of inquiry investigating the fire is focusing on the health and environmental impacts of smoke from the fire during the second week of hearings.