Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner has told the Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires he does not support a policy of mandatory evacuations of towns ahead of such fires.
Bruce Esplin says educating communities to make their own decisions about when to leave, rather than forcing them from their homes, is a key element of bushfire safety.
He says essential community engagement and shared responsibility is fundamental in preparing people for the annual fire season.
Mr Esplin says in the lead-up to the fire season, helping people to make a decision on their fire plan is critical for fire agencies.
That lead-up period provides the opportunity for residents to refine their decision to either leave early or be fully prepared to stay and protect their home, Mr Esplin told the commission.
He says preparation and information needs to be provided to the community so they can make an informed, logical decision without the threat of fire upon them.
He says too many people do not understand how terrifying it is to experience a bushfire and he says a simulation of a bushfire would give people further information to help them decide on their fire plan.
He suggested a trailer could be set up to simulate the noise and smoke of a bushfire so people are more psychologically prepared for the experience.
“We need to do more about enshrining bushfire safety into education curriculum for example,” he said.
He says making people realise the risk they face is one of the biggest challenges for fire authorities.
He says Victoria’s road system would not support the huge volumes of traffic that would be generated by a large scale evacuation.
Mr Esplin says given the huge swathe of the state at risk on Black Saturday, evacuations would have posed an enormous challenge and he is not sure it could have been done.
“I’ve seen situations in California where the very extensive free way system is just log-jammed with cars,” he said.
“I’m aware of a fire in California in 2003 where there was a compulsory evacuation. Twenty-two people I think lost their lives leaving at the last minute.”
He told the commission he does not think Victorians want to be forced out of their homes when fire threatens and says the policy in California is currently being reconsidered by US authorities.
Mr Esplin says appropriate warnings were given to the Victorian community in the lead-up to and on Black Saturday.
“On the basis of what I’ve seen, I haven’t seen a situation where as many warnings were delivered in that period of time and such a period of time,” he said.
“Warnings that were stark and clear and unequivocal about the level of risk.”
He told the Royal Commission that a warning issued one hour before the bushfire hit Marysville would have been adequate notice for those who planned to stay and defend.
He said warnings on the day were not designed to tell people to leave, but to tell those who were staying to make final preparations, like turning on sprinklers, checking pumps and putting on protective clothes.
Tomorrow there will be evidence from the Weather Bureau and other witnesses will speak about the tracking of bushfires.
The Black Saturday bushfires on February 7 killed 173 Victorians and left thousands more homeless.