Australia — The Victorian Government effectively abandoned its policy of providing designated public bushfire refuges in fire-prone areas despite knowing that up to 30 per cent of residents still planned to rely on them in an emergency.
The refuges, which were established to provide safe public shelters after the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983, fell victim to bureaucratic buck-passing and fears they might undermine the Government’s controversial “stay or go” policy.
The Black Saturday bushfires royal commission has said it will examine the use of refuges and what counsel assisting, Jack Rush QC, described as a “level of uncertainty in the community” about whether they still exist.
The state Government still has a formal policy of allowing fire refuges, but does not advocate their use and leaves it up to councils to decide whether they want to pay to run them under strict guidelines.
Mr Rush told the opening of the royal commission this week that a preliminary investigation had not been able to find a single compliant fire refuge in the state.
On Black Saturday, many people forced out of their homes by the advancing fire fronts sheltered in pubs, Country Fire Authority sheds or the houses of neighbours. Others were caught in cars or on foot, and died.
Complaints about the lack of public refuges were raised during community sessions the royal commission held in areas devastated on Black Saturday.
Signposted refuges, which were usually community buildings, schools or sports ovals, were adopted as government policy following an inquiry into the Ash Wednesday bushfires. But local councils, which were responsible for providing them, were allowed to quietly phase them out in the late 1990s. The removal of signs showing the location of refuges was in most cases the only indication that the policy was being abandoned.
In 2003. an investigation of fire preparedness by the Victorian auditor-general found up to 30per cent of residents still planned to shelter in a refuge, despite the official position on their use being “unclear and inconsistent”.
The auditor-general’s report said it was “of considerable concern” that so many people planned to use refuges, despite the fact they were no longer available in most areas.
The Victorian coroner raised concerns about the availability of refuges after an inquest into the deaths of three people in a fire in the Dandenong Ranges in 1997.
In late 2005, Victoria’s emergency services commission released a report on refuges that set out rules for how they must be established and maintained. It also acknowledged there was still a “large group of people” who planned to go to a refuge during a bushfire.
But the emergency services commissioner said the Victorian Government did not require councils to provide refuges, and warned that councils could be open to litigation if they provided them and things went wrong in an emergency.
In what appeared to be a green light for councils to abandon refuges, the commissioner said: “It is important to note that a council cannot be sued in relation to a policy decision to close a refuge or not have any fire refuges at all.”
The report admitted the state Government could not order the provision of refuges because it would “tend to undermine the CFA’s recommended bushfire behaviour model”.