Mandatory mass evacuation during a bushfire is a death wish, a leading fire expert says.
David Packham, who has more than 50 years experience in bushfire chemistry, said the risks of a large-scale movement of people outweighed the protection afforded by staying indoors.
“If you want to increase the life lost in a bushfire, declare a mandatory evacuation,” Mr Packham told the February 7 bushfires royal commission on Wednesday.
“Because the most dangerous place in a bushfire is outside in the fire.
“If you evacuate, there will be some people who will get away with it … there will be other people who will be caught on the roads.”
But under questioning from counsel assisting the commission, Rachel Doyle, Mr Packham conceded smaller, targeted evacuations could prove effective.
“If we evacuate some people, some people will lose their lives,” he said.
“If we don’t evacuate, my argument is that more people will lose their lives.
“There is no easy yes/no absolute answer.”
He said the development of local communication networks could be useful in an evacuation of high-risk areas, in particular the “meals-on-wheels” database was one method to trial, where people who delivered meals to the elderly could instead evacuate them to safety during a bushfire.
But Mr Packham agreed that one of the greatest impediments to evacuation was the unwillingness for individuals to give away their right to stay at home, especially to official bodies.
“They’re going to have a bit of fun when somebody wants to try and evacuate me from my house …”
The commission also heard from Mudgegonga resident Karen Ward, who lost her house on Black Saturday.
Ms Ward said she and husband Dwayne had a significant fire plan should fire threaten their 17-acre property in Victoria’s northeast.
Mr Ward, a Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteer who fought fires in 2003 and 2006, had ensured the couple were armed for any outbreaks, with the house well clear of grass and trees.
On February 7, Ms Ward received a call from a neighbour about 6pm who reported fire in the Stanley area and immediately enacted her fire plan.
Police officers from Bright who arrived at the house were told the couple would stay and defend.
Just after 10pm she could see fire approaching on a hill about 500 metres southwest of the property.
“I was shocked,” she said.
“It was burning my arms, I could feel the heat through my shirt,” she said.
“I thought to myself, how do the CFA … go out and fight these fires, but I asked my husband and he said: ‘We don’t’.
“It was at that time he said: ‘I don’t think we should do this’.”
They packed their animals into two cars and immediately drove off in the direction of Myrtleford, with no idea where to go.
As they reached a hill on the Myrtleford-Yackandandah Road they watched their house “go up in flames”.
“People who know our property and know that it burnt just cannot believe that it happened, where we were and how far we were away from trees … they just cannot believe that it’s gone,” Ms Ward said.
Stoic under questioning, she told the commission a fire rating system and a “courtesy call” from the CFA would have made a difference on February 7.
“If they don’t call people and they don’t go to the house when fires are coming then what do they do?”