PASSIVE SMOKING: The plumes of smoke generated by the 740-hectare Williamtown blaze came from a single lightning strike days before the flames took hold and took three days to control. Picture: Max Mason-HubersPOSSIBLY days before any fire crew screamed towards Williamtown, a bolt from the heavens kicked off a smouldering chain of events which would culminate in 30-metre high flames and prompt the closure of main roads.
Some of the state’s best bushfire experts have determined that the 740-hectare blaze which ripped through tea tree country near the Williamtown RAAF Base was the work of a lightning strike, and not at the hands of an arsonist as some first suspected last Friday.
Through a combination of old-fashioned footwork and the latest technology, those same experts have also been able to pinpoint exactly where the fire started.
NSW RFS fire investigation manager Bob Mathieson said it was impossible to determine the source of all the 25,000 blazes which erupt across the state each year.
But as soon as local experts deem a fire suspicious, it is up to the investigators to rule out all other sources as part of the broader inquiry.
“It’s like a criminal breaking into your house, they are going to leave DNA and evidence around the place,’’ Mr Mathieson said.
“A fire also leaves evidence –all we are trying to do is find that evidence and through a process of elimination determine what has occurred.’’
In the case of the Williamtown blaze, authorities last Friday believed there was evidence of it being suspicious.
It included local knowledge that it had become a favourite haunt for firebugs and the fact that there was no other fires from lightning strikes which had jumped upin the days preceding.
But after looking at lightning tracking devices, which pinpoint where every bolt hits, and backtracking through the fire ground, the investigators were able to rule out an arsonist and confirm that Mother Naturewas the culprit.
And it may well have smouldered in the scrub for days before the right conditions allowed it to ramp up and produce the massive plumes of dark smoke which covered much of the Hunter for several days, and caused the closure of two of Port Stephens’ most usedarterial roads.
“All we really try and do is find the origin of the fire, and the cause, and the police take over from there if it is deemed suspicious,’’ Lower Hunter RFS manager SuperintendentJayson McKellar said.“And the fire investigators are very good at what they do.’’
Meanwhile, police are still investigating the source of the blaze which threatened homes in the Coalfields towns of Neath and Abermain on Monday.
The fire remains classed as suspicious because the source was remains unknown.
Detectives have been called in to investigate.