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Black Summer bushfire inquest hears farm hand Mark Turner started fire using welding equipment

Worker on first day of new job accidentally causes wildfire that destroyed 10 houses

  • Farmhand Mark Turner accidentally set a Black Summer bushfire in 2019
  • He used welding equipment on a farm in Palmers Oaky despite windy conditions
  • The fire burned for 58 days on more than 17,000 hectares until the end of January
  • The fire destroyed 10 houses, 14 farm buildings and damaged two other houses

Farmhand Mark Turner was on the first day of a new job when he employed a welder and accidentally started a major Black Summer bushfire that destroyed 10 homes.

Mr Turner told the coronavirus inquiry into the NSW bushfires that he knew it was risky to weld a metal fence post on a drought-ravaged ranch in Palmers Oaky, central west NSW, on a hot December day in 2019.

‘We shouldn’t have welded. We shouldn’t have worked,” Mr Turner told the inquiry on Wednesday, visibly stressed.

Farmhand Mark Turner said he accidentally started a Black Summer bushfire by using welding equipment on a dry and windy day (pictured, a farm during the Black Summer bushfires)

Farmhand Mark Turner said he accidentally started a Black Summer bushfire by using welding equipment on a dry and windy day (pictured, a farm during the Black Summer bushfires)

“It was so dry and windy. All you had to do was get a spark and something would have lit.’

The farmhand, who had welding experience on the job but no formal qualifications, said he wanted to impress his new boss, Jamie Edwards.

Mr Edwards stood nearby watching for sparks, but the couple took no other fire precautions, the inquest was told.

“I wasn’t thinking about those things, I wanted to do the best work and show the best I could do,” Mr Turner said.

Counsel assisting the coroner, Adam Casselden SC, said the fire was accidentally set on Dec. 4 on private property in the Upper Turon region, north of Bathurst.

The fire burned for 58 days on more than 17,000 acres before being extinguished on January 31, 2020.

It destroyed 10 houses, 14 farm buildings and damaged two other houses.

Mr Turner recalls stomping on the fire when it started, while he and other workers later tried unsuccessfully to use a sprinkler.

Mr Turner's fire burned for 58 days on more than 17,000 acres, destroying 10 homes, 14 farm buildings and damaging two other homes (photo, firefighters during the Black Summer wildfires)

Mr Turner’s fire burned for 58 days on more than 17,000 acres, destroying 10 homes, 14 farm buildings and damaging two other homes (photo, firefighters during the Black Summer wildfires)

“I did everything I could to douse the flames,” said Mr. Turner.

He described “alarm bells ringing in my head” as the fire rose, amid rapidly changing wind conditions.

“We had put out the fire, but the embers flew away and a new fire would start.”

Mr Turner denied that he and Mr Edwards later discussed telling police that the fire was caused by a car exhaust or a piece of farm equipment.

But he agreed the men spoke before Mr Turner made a statement to police.

“Jamie said he was afraid he would go to jail and he said ‘let me go fishing with (family) first,'” Mr Turner said.

Edwards said he was initially concerned about going to the police because his “name was mud” among locals, but he spoke to detectives in January and told the truth.

He said the farm owner, Charbel Tannous, insisted that the men weld rather than use bolts.

Another employee, Spencer Morgan, said he was not trained to use firefighting equipment on the property, but always drove around with a sprayer filled with water.

Mr Morgan said none of the men knew how to use it and the pressure valve was in the wrong position.

“There was enough water to douse the flames, but not enough to stop the embers,” Morgan said.

The investigation continues for state coroner Teresa O’Sullivan.

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