Mass evacuations during bushfires were probably impossible in Victoria because its roads would not cope, Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin told the Bushfires Royal Commission yesterday.
He also said Victoria might have to adopt the term “mega-fire” to describe blazes too fierce to be fought. “It will be the weather and the locale that actually puts those fires out; it won’t be the efforts of the firefighters. They are beyond combat,” he said.
Asked what it would take to evacuate a township of 1000 people, he said Victoria did not have the road network to be able to do it. “The Great Ocean Road, the Dandenong Tourist Road, the Kinglake-Whittlesea Road they are not meant for huge numbers of traffic in that sort of situation.”
Mr Esplin said even in California, fire evacuations left its extensive freeway system “log-jammed with cars”.
Mandatory evacuation would have been particularly unmanageable before the Black Saturday fires in which 173 died, he said. “Given that the whole of the state was considered to be an extreme bushfire risk, fire could have started anywhere around the state. It would have been an enormous challenge to evacuate the whole of the state in the lead-up period.”
He said the US term “mega-fire” was helping people realise “that there is perhaps a scale of fire and an intensity of fire that is beginning to be experienced that may be beyond what has happened before”.
Mr Esplin said “tree-changers” now living in “dormitory suburbs” on the urban/rural fringe were city people with no traditional link to bushfire understanding, but climate change had left them at high risk on extreme-weather days.
Climate change and drought also meant that extreme bushfires were occurring more often.