Australia — ELEANOR HALL: As Australia braces for adifficult bushfire season, a landmark national report on major fires has foundthat most deaths are caused by people deciding to evacuate too late.
Researchers say this backs the “leave early or stay and defend” policythat’s been adopted by most fire-fighting agencies nationwide.
In Melbourne, Samantha Donovan reports.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Researchers from around Australia have collated all bushfirereports and official inquiry reports over the last century.
And they’ve concluded that fleeing fires at the last minute is the cause of mostdeaths.
RMIT University’s Professor John Handmer says the figures show it’s crucial toavoid last-minute evacuations.
JOHN HANDMER: Most of those people who were outside were attempting to flee fromthe fire. The problem is that they were fleeing into the fire, or caught inheavy smoke, were disoriented, and so were caught out by the fire, rather thanthe relative safety of their own homes.
And the tragedy is that in many of the cases we’ve looked at, the houses theyfled from didn’t burn down, even though there was no one there to protect them,or burnt down slowly, so that they would’ve provided a safe refuge from thefirefront.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: And by looking at deaths in fires like Ash Wednesday and theHobart fire of 1967, Professor Handmer has found that women and children are themost common victims when the decision to evacuate is left too late.
JOHN HANDMER: Unfortunately, women and children are more inclined to leave atthe last minute, probably because there’s a genuine feeling that it’s verydangerous when they are when the firefront arrives, so they should get out ofthe area.
Unfortunately, this means that people in that situation, often anyway, women andchildren will drive into the firefront, or into various smoky conditions, andfind that they’re disoriented, and then trapped and caught by the fire, withtragic consequences, whereas the men remain in the house in relative safety,even though they might’ve thought they were taking all the risks.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: But Professor Handmer says staying to defend a home isn’t easy,and that it’s the frightening conditions that often lead people to change theirminds and flee when it’s too late.
JOHN HANDMER: There’s a lot of noise. There’s strong winds, and the area’s fullof embers, it’s full of smoke, it’s very hot, and being outside is extremelyunpleasant and extremely dangerous. Being inside can be quite frightening,because of the noise, and the feeling that there’s total chaos everywhere. Smokeof course seeps into the house. There’ll be little fires burning around thehouse.
But we stress that even in apparently extraordinary circumstances, such as theMt Stromlo fires recently, of 2003, near Canberra, people reported that afterthe fire pretty well everything was still standing. Things burnt, but thingsburnt down slowly over the next few hours, before any fire services arrived.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: John Handmer says staying to defend your home isn’t the onlyoption, but the timing is crucial.
JOHN HANDMER: People can leave early as well, and people who are doubtful aboutstaying in their homes should probably plan to leave early, before the firefrontthreatens their areas.
We think, from our research, that people should also think about what they’d doif they were trapped, because fires can suddenly arrive in many places, noteverywhere, but can suddenly arrive without much warning.
But for those that are really unsure about it, or feel that they’re notphysically or mentally up to the task, and it’s a pretty terrifying task, theyshould plan to leave before the firefront arrives.
The advice is that on a day of total fire ban, if you’re in a high-risk area,maybe you should go somewhere else.
ELEANOR HALL: Professor John Handmer from Melbourne’s RMIT University, speakingto Samantha Donovan.