Let’s not throw good policy into the fire

Let’s not throw good policy into the fire

11 July 2009

published by www.theage.com.au

Australia —

In A few weeks, I will front the first of many local halls on Melbourne’s outskirts filled with anxious and undoubtedly very confused people. They will want to know how to prepare for another bushfire summer.

It won’t be enough to tell them a suddenly expert assortment of lawyers, lobbyists and media commentators has determined that Victorians should abandon decades of learnings about bushfire in favour of a confusing grab-bag of partial solutions, some already found wanting in the past. Nor in the shadow of February 7 will it be sufficient to tell them it’s going to be “business as usual” this summer.

Recent commentary has suggested that the “prepare, stay and defend or leave early” policy — usually reduced simplistically to “stay or go” — is dead. Moreover, it has been characterised as some kind of bizarre social experiment concocted by bureaucrats and imposed on an unwilling public.

But any debate about significant public policy requires a considered conversation based on fact rather than emotion or supposition about how things have come about.

In the context of what has passed so far for debate about the 2009 Victorian bushfires, the history of how Victoria arrived at a policy of advising its citizens that in the face of bushfire they should either leave early or stay and defend a well-prepared property has simply been ignored.

In practice, “stay or go” dates to at least the mid-1950s. It more formally became State Government policy last October, when it was incorporated into the Living with Fire strategy jointly proposed by DSE and the CFA and subsequently endorsed by cabinet.

Historically, the policy is rooted in the commonsense practice of farmers and surrounding communities who have dealt with fire for generations. In the bush, until the advent of rapidly deployed firefighting resources and aerial support, you were largely on your own when a bushfire came.

Landowners were left to defend not only their property, but also their livestock, sheds, equipment, the farmhouse and family. These origins might explain in part the curious and ill-conceived discussion lately around the priority that the policy allegedly gives to property ahead of life.

Bushfire experts have actively promoted using houses as shelter from radiant heat since at least the early 1960s. A Code of Fire Fighting (c.1960), issued by the Country Fire Authority and the Victorian Rural Fire Brigades Association, advocated using a house as protection from radiant heat.

R. H. Luke’s Bushfire Control in Australia (1961) provided detailed instructions on how to defend a rural home, noting that “the house and its environs should be the safest place of refuge … trying to race a fire to a waterhole is a hazardous operation and attempted evacuation by car could be disastrous”. The latter point was underscored when seven people died in one vehicle at Longwood in 1965.

The CFA publication Summer Peril (1966) noted that “few lives have been lost inside homes in bushfires”. A succession of CFA publications through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s detailed the ideas and gave practical advice on staying and defending or leaving early.

Sheltering in the home has been the only practical option for many families living in isolated areas. But the growth of closer settlement in bushfire-prone areas called for adaptation of the approach to the needs of homes in bushland. This was emphasised by the experience of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, when 25 of the 32 civilian deaths occurred in the open or in vehicles.

In response, CFA set about putting “stay or go” on a more formal footing. It was delivered to communities across Victoria through the Community Fireguard program from 1993. In 2001, the Australasian Fire Authorities Council endorsed it at a national level.

The policy has never been seen as a simple fix. But bushfires are not simple events. “Stay or go” demands a level of practical understanding about the place of fire in the landscape. It calls on residents in bushfire-prone areas to take responsibility, to make hard decisions about how they plan to ensure their own safety and action on those decisions. The onus is on the individual. It is not about the State Government abandoning its citizens. It is about giving people tools and understandings to work with and fire agencies working with them.

Both before Black Saturday and since that date, “stay or go” has proved effective in saving lives and minimising property losses. A good example of the policy working since February 7 was at a fire in the Upwey-Belgrave South area on February 23, where hundreds of homes were directly threatened. This fire began in almost exactly the same location as one of the most deadly blazes of Ash Wednesday. This time, a number of well-prepared residents remained and actively defended their homes. (I know this because I was there with them.) Many left. There was no loss of life or homes.

A crucial debate yet to be had is about the appropriateness of such a “one size fits all” approach to community safety in the aftermath of the February 7 tragedy. Does a policy that had its genesis in a rural setting translate successfully into semi-rural, residential bushland or even suburban settings? The answer would seem to be — again from practical experience — that in most instances it does but in some specific locations it does not. These are the margins where those who question “stay or go” might engage in more useful debate.

Trashing the whole policy because of the events of February 7 and leaving the people of Victoria bewildered and with no real alternative would hardly amount to good governance. Yet that seems to be the approach that some critics would have the state adopt.

John Schauble is a senior researcher in the Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner. He is also a CFA captain and author of The Australian Bushfire Safety Guide.

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