Rudd criticised over bush fire compensation

Thu, Feb 12, 2009, 00:00

AUSTRALIA’S PRIME minister, Kevin Rudd, yesterday urged insurers not to delay in settling the claims of victims of the devastating Victorian bush fires. But he faced stinging criticism over federal government payments to victims being delayed by bureaucracy.

In an open letter to Mr Rudd, fire survivor Gary Hughes, a journalist for the Australiannewspaper, wrote of his anger at being asked for identification to receive a payment, despite losing everything when his house burnt down.

The prime minister said earlier in the week that payments would be made to victims without identification. “What happened to Mr Hughes should not have happened,” Mr Rudd told parliament yesterday.

The bush fires in Victoria have left close to 200 people dead, with at least 50 more still missing.

Around 500 people have been injured, more than 1,000 homes destroyed and 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) scorched.

More than 5,000 people have been left homeless.

Twenty-five fires were still raging last night, with the biggest fear being that two major fronts in the east of the state would merge after lightning sparked a number of smaller blazes between them.

Country Fire Authority operations manager David Harrisson said only 18 kilometres separated the fires.

“We have to be realistic that with the forecast weather for the weekend and particularly into Tuesday and Wednesday of next week . . . these fires certainly have the potential to join up,” he said.

The town of Flowerdale, 120 kilometres northeast of Melbourne, lost five people and four out of every five houses on Saturday.

Helen and Paul Petkovski and their four sons survived the fire, but their house of 19 years did not.Returning to see what remained of their home yesterday, Ms Petkovski described it as “death valley”.

“Our photos, my umbilical cords that I kept from my children, the wrist bands from the hospital, their first teeth were gone,” she told ABC radio.

On the trip home the couple also discovered that both their dogs had died in the blaze.

The Flowerdale fire is one of those suspected of being the result of arson. “It just breaks my heart to know it was deliberately lit,” Mr Petkovski said.

Victorian premier John Brumby warned yesterday that the death toll in Marysville, one of the worst affected areas, could be as high as 100 – one in five of the town’s population.

The state government is expected to announce a planning law change which will bring in far stricter building codes for areas prone to bush fires.