Australia — A man who watched a bushfire approach his suburban neighbourhood on Black Saturday said authorities “had no idea” where people should move to evacuate.
Chris Casey, who lives in the Bendigo suburb of Long Gully, told the bushfires royal commission on Thursday that when he called triple zero and asked to speak to fire authorities on February 7 he was told they didn’t know where to evacuate and were busy fighting fires.
A further emergency call to police advised they had “no idea” of any evacuation point in Bendigo.
The blaze swept across Bendigo, destroying homes and property in the rural fringe suburbs of Maiden Gully, California Gully, Long Gully, Eaglehawk and West Bendigo, situated close to bushland.
When Mr Casey investigated the smoke near his home he managed to flag down a police car and was told there was a roadblock nearby and everyone needed to evacuate.
“This was the only time I received any warning or advice from an official source,” he said.
A doorknock of his street alerted neighbours of the evacuation, the commission heard.
One elderly woman expressed concern that she had no family and asked if Mr Casey knew where to evacuate with her dog.
She was not alone – the area populated with a high number of elderly and disability support pensioners had high numbers of residents with “mobility issues”, he said.
The local ABC radio broadcast was also of little assistance on the day.
“During the onset of the fire, when people needed clear direction the most mixed messages were broadcast…,” he said.
In one case, the commission heard that listeners were told the evacuation point was in the suburb of Eaglehawk, which was then changed to Kangaroo Flat, because Eaglehawk was too close to the fire area.
People were finally diverted back to Eaglehawk where a crisis centre had been set up.
Mr Casey told the commission many people fell through the gaps, including in the most extreme case, house-bound 48-year-old Long Gully man Kevin “Mick” Kane who died in the fires after he was trapped inside his home.
The commission also heard from psychology professor Douglas Paton who has extensively researched how people deal with hazards.
He said the link between information and preparedness was “not automatic”.
When presented with a large amount of information people were “much more likely to put it aside,” Prof Paton said.
Mass media, particularly radio, was an effective means of breaking down bushfire information and warnings into “manageable chunks”, Prof Paton suggested.
But a warning issued on radio that is followed by normal programming may not be as effective as a full broadcast dedicated to discussion of bushfire events, he said.
The royal commission is due to sit again on June 9.