Australia — Victoria´s contentious “stay or go” bushfire policy must be urgently revised before the next fire season to highlight its dangers after the deaths of so many people inside houses on Black Saturday, the royal commission investigating the disaster has been told.
Current advice given by the Country Fire Authority understated the risk that people staying to defend their properties might face, counsel assisting the royal commission said.
The royal commission should recommended in its interim findings on August 17 that the policy be amended so residents are warned of the dangers of staying, told that not all houses can be defended and advised to have a contingency plan in case things went wrong.
Revising the policy was one of many sweeping changes the royal commission was urged to recommended before the next fire season, including the CFA adopting a more flexible management structure and improving the way it gives public warnings to communities under threat.
It has also been asked to recommend the reintroduction of public fire refuges and voluntary evacuations in high-risk bushfire zones.
Victorian Premier John Brumby, speaking outside the royal commission, yesterday acknowledged that “a lot of issues” had been raised in the wake of Black Saturday regarding the stay or go policy. But neither the government nor the opposition seemed prepared to push for it to be wholly replaced by mass evacuation.
“All of these matters will be examined by the commission but we’ve consistently said the stay or go policy with refinement is the right policy for our state … it is not possible to consider or to contemplate a policy of forced evacuation,” Mr Brumby said.
Junior counsel assisting the royal commission, Lisa Nichols, said the stay or go policy, which advised people to prepare to stay and defend their homes or leave early, sounded simple but was, in fact, complex and required difficult decisions.
One of the requirements, which was for people to assess their own physical and emotional ability to stay and defend their homes, was “difficult if not impossible” to do.
The fact that 113 of the 173 victims of Black Saturday died in homes showed that “the protection of human life must be the overriding objective of the policy”.
“Preservation of assets, while important, is a secondary consideration,” Ms Nichols said.
The CFA should consider how it could provide individual advice to property owners on whether their homes were defendable and report back to the royal commission by September 30, she said.
Counsel assisting the inquiry, Jack Rush QC, told the commission that the CFA had clearly failed to issue “timely, sufficiently detailed or relevant” warnings to communities on Black Saturday.
He said sufficient information was available to provide warnings to communities such as Marysville, Kinglake, Kinglake West, Strathewen and St Andrews during the afternoon of February 7, in some cases hours before they were engulfed by wildfires.
Lawyers for the Victorian government will make their final submission to the royal commission today.