Australia — One of the many touching stories to come out of the bushfire tragedy was that of Dorothy Barber, who survived the destruction of her house at Steels Creek by finding protection in a tiny crawl space below her back stairs. When her family and friends slipped past the roadblocks at midnight, it must have been like a journey to the underworld. They could only have expected to find her dead, but she survived in good health, thanks to the protection offered by that little bit of space.
Another couple at Strathewen shared a dam outlet pipe with a kangaroo, and survived. Having a sanctuary is often crucial to survival, so it is little wonder that the Bushfires Royal Commission is expected to recommend community refuges, which could be a big part of the solution for townspeople. But Victorians who live in the bush need a safe place on their properties.
A lot of people died for want of the protection offered by a bit of crawl space or an old concrete pipe. If they had had a retreat that protected them from the radiant heat long enough for the worst of the fire to pass, they would have survived, even if their homes did not.
But small fire refuges, or bunkers, for individual houses seem not to be being considered, possibly because in the past the debate has been about large refuges designed to protect whole communities.
The CFA produces a 40-page bushfire survival plan workbook to guide home owners. It does not mention fire refuges as structures separate from the house. Following the CFA’s advice will greatly reduce the risk of the house burning down, but it is not a guarantee. There are too many things that can go wrong with a fire plan.
Because lives depend on its success, a safe fall-back position is needed. As it stands, people are betting their lives that a house can be defended. When they realise this they panic and flee, only to die on the roads.
As far as it goes, the CFA strategy of stay or leave early makes a lot of sense. The number of burnt-out cars shows the danger of leaving late. There were fewer people killed in cars on Black Saturday than there were on Ash Wednesday, but many of the people who could be at risk in future fires live on winding tracks deep in the bush.
This maze of tracks in places such as St Andrews and Christmas Hills was established for the convenience of gold miners and their horses before government surveyors could impose order.
Sometimes these tracks force users to travel kilometres in the likely direction of a fire before they reach the main road. Even locals would find navigating these tracks through heavy smoke nearly impossible.
So an early evacuation is imperative for survival, but may not be possible if the fire starts close by, or if the warning is not heard. Ten kilometres may seem like a safe distance, but on Black Saturday that meant residents had an hour and a quarter to escape even less if the road out led towards the fire.
Whether by choice or by necessity, many people are going to be caught at home when a fire attacks. The houses that survived all protected their occupants and some of the most striking images to come out of Black Saturday are those of houses left standing in the devastated forest. The problem is that many houses did not survive, and that left the occupants with no escape.
The new building regulations will give more protection, but only to new houses. The next fire season is only months away and the majority of houses that will be at risk are existing structures.
Guidance from the CFA about what makes a dependable fire refuge would help home owners. People need reassurance that the refuge will be safe and they will not be trapped, and that fire will not take all their oxygen. Refuges need to be simple, so that they will still provide protection after decades of neglect, and cheap so that people of modest means will be able to afford them. Houses may burn, but lives can still be saved.
Some commercially available underground refuges are certainly fireproof, and probably bombproof, but over-engineered and more expensive than many people can afford. Top-entry refuges with ladder access are a problem for injured people and pets.
It is clear that the CFA strategy of stay or leave early needs a second line of defence for people who choose to stay or who can’t escape from fires. We need to give them at least the same level of protection that saved Dorothy Barber.