Bushfire season — will governments act in time?

September 20, 2009

With the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission's Interim Report tabled last month, it is now up to various state governments and the federal government to respond quickly to save lives when the next catastrophic fires happen.

Many of the report's 51 recommendations would help resolve problems faced by Victorians during the February bushfire crisis. It also missed the ball on some matters and totally left other issues — especially climate change — out of its considerations.

For the recommendations to be put into practice, a big injection of government funds must be guaranteed for the long term. An ongoing commitment is needed because future extreme weather events and catastrophic bushfires are certain as climate change continues to warm the planet.

Greater funding

The commission included several proposals that would need increased funding to be realised.

Among these are: an education program on the work residents will need to do to make their homes safer; clearer options for residents during bushfires; the establishment of fire refuges, maintained and signposted in bushfire-prone areas; adequate staffing and funding of emergency call centres; and improvements in the technology to allow up-to-date warnings to be posted directly to emergency services' websites from Incident Control Centres.

The Victorian government will also need to improve the equipment for the Country Fire Authority (CFA), which still uses many older, inadequate tankers.

The report recommended the CFA undertake inspections of properties to advise residents how defendable they are. The CFA is a volunteer organisation with a small staff and would need a funding increase to carry out this role. Interestingly, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service already provides this service.

The CFA's promotion of the Stay and Defend or Leave Early policy was a contentious topic in submissions to the commission. It also reflected another problem with the discussion — an uninformed commercial media, which has campaigned vigorously for the policy to be ditched.

Stay or go?

Various forms of the "stay or go" policy are used by fire organisations around the country. It says residents should decide whether to stay or to leave and suggests how they should respond in the event of a bushfire.

The policy says it is extremely dangerous to leave a home late, as a fire approaches.

Fire trucks and panicked residents will be using the roads. With fallen trees and thick smoke, the likelihood of an accident and being caught in the path of a fire is high. The policy points out that defending a well prepared house is a lot safer than leaving late.

It says if a resident decides to leave, then they should leave early and seek refuge in a safe place.

Fire authorities acknowledge there are problems with the policy. Residents need to be fully informed and have to assess their properties in advance. Fire warnings need to be early enough to allow residents to leave in time.

A policy of forcible evacuations would be wrong, however. Residents who decide to stay and defend their properties should have the right to do so. On the other hand, using emergency services personnel to evacuate people against their will would waste thinly stretched resources.

The commission made a few recommendations to change the "stay or go" policy. One of these was to outline the problems associated with staying and defending a property. Many who died in the February fires were not adequately prepared, or were physically incapable of defending their homes.

Another issue is the severity of the fire. A property that can be defended with a Fire Danger Index of 75 would find a different situation with an FDI of about 300.

After the report, federal and state governments have introduced a new category of fire danger — Catastrophic, or Code Red — for weather conditions with an FDI of more than 100.

The commission recommended that the FDI be advertised in Bureau of Meteorology weather warnings and on emergency services websites. During a Code Red, residents in bushfire prone areas will be advised to leave their homes the day before.

However, even this does not meet the community needs. An FDI of 100-150 makes for a very difficult situation for fire fighting in populated areas. But an FDI of 300, which happened in Victoria on February 7 and 8, presents a far greater set of problems.

A better system would have at least two new ratings to be added for an FDI higher than 100.

As we approach another hot, dry fire season it remains to be seen whether governments are capable of bringing about changes that will help save lives. On past and present performance, they look set to fail the challenge unless greater public pressure can be brought to bear for serious action.

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