Community bushfire refuges urged

Community bushfire refuges urged

2 July 2009

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Australia — Community fire refuges would be re-established across Victoria under sweeping reforms to the “stay-or-go” policy expected to be recommended to the Bushfires Royal Commission.

ABC television reported last night what it said were details of recommendations to be made public today by lawyers assisting the commission.

Aimed at avoiding a repeat of the Black Saturday fires in which 173 people died, the recommendations would also include:

– A system of selective voluntary evacuations of residents threatened by bushfire.

– Installing fire sirens for towns that want them.

– Introducing an alert tone for fire-threatened communities, similar to that used in northern Australia for cyclones.

Fire behaviour expert Kevin Tolhurst, who has made several appearances before the commission, last night backed the reinstatement of fire refuges.

“We’ve got to acknowledge that the mass exodus of people is going to be almost impossible in some locations so you do need somewhere locally and community refuges make some sense,” Dr Tolhurst told The Age.

The ABC also reported that CFA chief officer Russell Rees would face criticism from senior counsel assisting the commission Jack Rush QC for being “divorced from fundamental aspects of the responsibility he had as chief officer including the provision of public warnings and the protection of life”.

The commission has heard evidence that the stay-or-go policy was based largely on the principle that “people save houses, houses save people” and that residents should leave well in advance if they did not feel able to defend their homes.

However, it has emerged that many people received little or no warning on February 7, or were unprepared for the onslaught due to the fire’s rapid spread.

Evidence that 113 of the victims died in homes also cast doubt over the policy, contradicting historical findings that the most common cause of death in fires was late evacuation.

Yesterday the commission also heard that the main emergency co-ordination centre in Melbourne concluded Kinglake was under threat from the Kilmore East blaze hours before residents were warned they were in the fire’s path.

CFA information unit manager Sarah Henshaw, who was working out of the Integrated Emergency Co-ordination Centre, said that at 2.28pm on February 7 she was told by CFA state co-ordinator Geoff Conway that Whittlesea, Humevale and Kinglake were priority areas for the Kilmore East fire.

Ms Henshaw said Mr Conway had told her and a Department of Sustainability and Environment colleague that Whittlesea would be impacted within two hours and that Humevale and Kinglake were also of concern.

“My understanding, it was based on an assessment that Geoff did or saw. I don’t know what informed his opinion,” Ms Henshaw said. She said the purpose was “to alert us to the fact that these were priority areas”.

Ms Henshaw said she passed the message on to the information officer for the Kilmore Incident Control Centre. A CFA spokesman then mentioned the warning about Kinglake on ABC radio at 4.43pm, but no further warning occurred until 5.55pm on the CFA website. Fire swept through Kinglake about 6.30pm.


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