Gov't failed to manage bushfire tragedy

August 22, 2009

The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission interim report was released on August 17. It found government and fire authorities failed to properly manage the deadliest bushfires in Australia's history.

The errors identified in the report contributed to the deaths of 173 people and the destruction of more than 2000 houses from the February 7 "Black Saturday" bushfires.

The Black Saturday fires occurred during a climate change induced drought that had left Victoria as dry as a tinderbox in January. The drought was combined with a huge heatwave. Melbourne had a record high of 46.4°C on February 7. This set the preconditions for the disaster.

Earlier this year government authorities and fire agencies had warned the public of the extreme weather conditions that made February 7 "the worst day ever in the history of the state". Yet the commission found that the same authorities were completely under-prepared at most levels to deal with the firestorm that engulfed Victorian communities.

A combination of fatal errors in judgement, inadequate material and personnel resources, and a meltdown of emergency communication systems were identified as key problems.

On February 7, fire authorities knew by 2pm the massive Kilmore East fire had the potential to cause loss of life and property. But no timely warnings were given to communities in its destructive path. One hundred and thirteen people perished in the Kilmore fire.

Police figures released to the commission revealed that out of 173 deaths, 113 people died in their houses. This raises serious questions about the viability of the "Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early" policy.

The policy focuses on homeowners preparing a defensible, fire-resistant space around their home. It was criticised for downplaying the importance of evacuation.

However, Victorian Premier John Brumby backed the controversial policy and ruled out a bushfire policy of forced evacuations at a July 3 press conference. The Victorian government has also refused to establish bushfire refuges in dangerous locations.

However, the United Firefighters Union of Australia (UFUA) took issue with this in its submission to the commission.

The UFUA said a 1997 Coroner's Inquiry identified evacuation as an issue then and said it was unreasonable to "assume that large scale evacuation is impossible without having conducted a proper analysis of the Victorian Road network".

The UFUA also said the "Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early" policy was inadequate because it put too much responsibility on community members who lack firefighting experience and education about fire risks.

The UFUA argued for a new policy that "emphasises the priority, in the face of threatening wildfire, of the saving of lives by actively recommending and assisting the evacuation of threatened populations".

There is no doubt that inaction on climate change, combined with government policies more concerned with saving costs than lives, are largely to blame for this horrific disaster.

Already, meteorologists are warning of an even worse fire season ahead this year, which seems to be falling on deaf ears. How many more lives will the government be prepared to sacrifice this time in defence of the indefensible?

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