CFA bushfire warnings on Black Saturday ‘confusing’

CFA bushfire warnings on Black Saturday ‘confusing’

16 June 2009

published by

Australia —

Warnings issued by Victoria’s Country Fire Authority on Black Saturday were confusing and badly constructed, the royal commission investigating Australia’s worst natural disaster was told today.Disaster management expert Professor John Handmer said warnings described the direction that fires were moving by using points of the compass, rather than also referring to local geographic features such as the nearest town.

They also referred to the size of fires in hectares, which might mean little to people living on the urban fringe, rather than using terms such as “large”.

One CFA warning for a fire that started at Kilmore early on Black Saturday and later killed more than 100 people said the township of Wandong was likely to be impacted and was already being impacted in the same message.

“It is more than quite confusing,” said Professor Handmer, who is director of RMIT University’s Centre for Risk and Community Safety.

The layout of text warnings on the CFA website was also poor and made it difficult for people to extract information immediately relevant to them.

Professor Handmer said a warning on the Kilmore fire issued about 2.30pm on Black Saturday describing it as being 638 hectares was “not very helpful” because only people living in rural areas would understand just how big that was.

He agreed with royal commissioner Ron McLeod that it would have been better to simply say the Kilmore fire was large, out of control and moving quickly.

Professor Handmer said a lot of people did not understand the word “imminently” used in CFA warnings about when fires would impact on communities and simpler terms such as “happening now” or “immediately” should be used.

Professor Handmer said there were a number of different ways of interpreting the CFA’s contentious “stay or go” policy, which encouraged people to either stay and defend their homes or leave early on days of extreme fire risk.

It was known that up to 30 per cent of people intended to “wait and see’ and not make a decision about leaving until a fire was nearby.

Professor Handmer said the policy assumed that people would know a lot about bushfires and their own physical and mental capacities to deal with one.

There could be a need for assessing the capacity of people to stay and defend their properties.

The policy also did not take into account that on any given day a number of people facing a bushfire would be suffering an illnesses or would be impaired by alcohol or drugs.

He agreed with counsel assisting the commission Rachel Ward that alcohol had been a factor in a number of deaths during the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983.

The hearing into the Black Saturday fires, which killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2000 homes, is continuing.

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