Bushfire ‘stay or go’ policy irresponsible: US chiefs

Bushfire ‘stay or go’ policy irresponsible: US chiefs

18 June 2009

published by www.theaustralian.news.com.au

Australia —

Californian fire chiefs warned that any consideration of adopting Australia’s contentious “stay or go” bushfire policy would be irresponsible in the light of the deaths of 173 people on Black Saturday, the royal commission investigating the disaster was told today.The public warning issued by California’s peak body of local fire chiefs on May 9 said the saving of human life continued to be the primary concern of fire agencies during wildfires.

“For that reason, the California fire service stands united in the position that early evacuation in the face of life-threatening wildfire is the single most important thing any homeowner can do to protect lives,” the warning said.

“Any consideration of the Australian so-called ‘leave early or stay and defend’ policy would be irresponsible at this time in light of the tragedy in Australia, as well as California’s own experience responding to firestorms.”

US wildfire safety expert Dr Sarah McCaffrey told the royal commission by video link from Chicago that mandatory evacuation continued to be the preferred option, even in special communities in California where houses had been specially constructed to be fire resistant and vegetation strictly controlled.

But she said she believed that it was too early for Australia to abandon its stay or go policy and more research was needed into what role if any it played in the high death toll on February 7.

“We can’t conclude automatically that stay and defend is a bad idea,” she said.

Dr McCaffrey agreed with counsel for the Victorian government Garry Livermore that following more research on how and why so many people died on February 7, the policy might need to be simply “refined” rather than abandoned.

Dr McCaffrey, who spent 10 weeks in Australia in 2007 studying the stay or go policy, said the strategy had caused a lot of interest in the US, despite it not being officially adopted.

While most fire agencies did not like it, many people living in wildfire areas had seen details of Australia’s stay or go policy on the internet and decided to unofficially use it.

Dr McCaffrey said previous mass evacuations used during wildfires in the US were not without problems, with some residents refusing to leave and others dying when trapped by advancing firefronts in their cars.

Evacuations had also become more complicated, particular in more heavily populated areas in the urban and rural interface areas, leading to a search for alternatives.

“Evacuations have become bigger and more complicated and people have begun to see that this doesn’t work any more, it’s not as simple a processes as it used to be,” she said.

During a mass evacuation in a wildfire at Oakland in California in 1991 there were traffic jams and 13 or 14 people died when flames trapped them in their cars, Dr McCaffrey said.

Fire chiefs had told her that it was only due to luck that more people had not been killed during mass evacuations.

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