By Kirra Grimes

“JUST like a big bonfire,” was how police and CFA volunteers described a deliberately-lit blaze at the Wonthaggi Golf Course last night (Monday, October 14), ruling out any risk of loss of life or property.

Ten CFA units – from Wonthaggi, Inverloch, Pound Creek, Dalyston and Kilcunda – attended the golf course just after 9.15pm, finding a large pile of wood ablaze on the hill back from the fifth green.

Wonthaggi CFA captain Arnie Marion said the sight upon arrival was a “massive glow in the sky that lit up the whole town,” and “hot, intense” fire, but due to favourable weather conditions and a lack of nearby infrastructure, the situation was able to be brought under control within an hour.

“Fortunately, it was pretty much in the middle of a paddock – so there was no immediate threat,” he said.

“It was pretty easy to bring under control because it wasn’t a windy or hot night – conditions were probably just right for a bonfire!”

Arnie said smoke inhalation was the only potential safety risk to nearby homes, as the fire continued to smoulder into the next day, and the CFA “handed it over to golf course management to look after”.

With Wonthaggi residents drawn out of their homes last night by the commotion, he urged members of the public to always keep a safe distance while emergency services carried out their jobs.

“Some people want to come and have a stickybeak and that’s ok but we just need to make sure emergency vehicles carrying water and things like that have good access, especially in the dark,” he said.

No leads on fire starter

Bass Coast Criminal Investigation Unit (CIU) has confimed that the fire was deliberately lit by an unidentified person or persons.

Senior detective Mick O’Neil told the Sentinel-Times this morning (Tuesday) that the CIU was investigating the incident, but had no suspects, due to a lack of witnesses and a lack of evidence found at the scene.

“We don’t know how it started,” Det O’Neil said this morning. “There was no sign of any accelerants being used and there were no witnesses, because of the nature of the area. But we know somebody set it on fire, somehow.”

Det O’Neil said that because the fire was not lit during a total fire ban period, there was “probably not a lot” police could do in terms of penalising the person/s responsible, but police were nevertheless appealing for information from the public to find that person.

“What was set alight was not actually property, not a house or a structure – it just firewood that was going to be burnt by the Golf Club anyway.

“But we’re always interested to know who’s responsible because that person might like lighting fires. That’s about it from our point of view,” he said.

Police were on scene at the height of the blaze, controlling traffic and supporting the CFA effort.

Anyone with information can contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

Council prevented controlled burns

The pile of wood set alight last night is one of several large piles created in the clearing of pine trees from the golf course 18 months ago.

The pine trees, some of which were over 50 years old and 80 metres tall, posed a safety risk to people using the golf course and to nearby homes, with Wonthaggi Golf Club President Norm Burne telling the Sentinel-Times the oldest trees had begun to fall down, and that “something needed to be done” after one tree “nearly took out our ground staff”.

Norm said the Golf Club had spent $30,000 disposing of the cleared trees via wood chipping, but the not-for-profit organisation simply did not have the funds to finish the job using this method, with the total cost estimated at over $100,000.

That’s when they turned to the Bass Coast Shire Council to seek permission to burn off the remaining piles of wood under controlled conditions.

That request, made in the course of a “friendly chat” with Council’s Fire Services Officer and Group Officer soon after the clearing of the trees, was immediately denied, due to concerns about smoke traveling to the nearby Wonthaggi Secondary College junior campus.

Norm said he explained to Council officers that the club had a good relationship with the school and, by choosing the right day, could’ve “easily managed” the smoke so that “nobody would’ve even noticed” the burns.

But he accepted the Council’s decision, saying: “If the Fire Services Officer says don’t burn, we don’t burn.”

He said it was a pity the Golf Club had been left with “piles of rubbish” which would “have to stay there until [they] get money to chop them up,” especially given the Korumburra Golf Club had recently been allowed by their local council to burn off in similar circumstances.

The Wonthaggi Golf Club has a couple of “projects in the works” that could raise the funds needed to complete the woodchipping, but Norm couldn’t see that happening before the end of summer.

“It’s a pity we couldn’t get rid of it when wanted to – if they [Council] had allowed a burn-off, it’d all be gone by now,” he said.

“If we had the money, we’d get rid of it tomorrow, but it’s not like we’ve got squillions in the bank – we can only do what we can do.”

Norm also said he did not believe last night’s blaze had been the work of a firebug but instead, an act of “mindless violence we have to learn to live with”.

“They didn’t just come in to light the fire. They caused a lot of other damage – they stole flags and moved markers and pipes – then lit the fire as an afterthought,” he said.

“This sort of thing has been going on [at the golf club] for a long, long time. We’ve been suffering with it for years, which is really annoying, because we try to let people have as much access as possible.”

Ongoing fire risk troubles golfers

Wonthaggi Golf Club members remain concerned about Council’s position on controlled burns at the course, saying remaining piles of wood represent an ongoing fire risk that will only increase in the upcoming summer period.

Members are particularly concerned about two large piles of dried timber located between the 11th and 12th fairways and another large pile located on the old practice fairway behind the 16th green, fearing that if someone were to set fire to one of these on a hot and windy summer’s day, sparks might travel, posing a serious threat to the community.

Some members have told the Sentinel-Times they’re pleased last night’s fire reduced some of the risk, although the circumstances weren’t ideal.

They’re hoping the incident might sway Council’s stance on the remaining wood piles.

Bass Coast Shire Council was contacted for comment.