The Victorian Government has given the Bushfire Royal Commission further details of its plans to improve community safety during bushfires.
The news that the government was working on specific initiatives took the Royal Commission and its lawyers by surprise last week, because the commission’s interim findings are not due until August 17.
The Victorian Opposition raised concerns that the Government was pre-empting the commission.
And now that further details are available, one key commission witness says some of the State Government’s plans are “scary”.
Last week the Victorian Government’s specific plans were news to the Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission, Jack Rush QC.
“Any recommendations that the commission make will in effect lack any form of force if the state of Victoria is out on a frolic of its own and doing something that does not inform the commissioners precisely of what is envisaged,” he said.
The Victorian Government’s plans were touched on in its submission to the commission, but then expanded on in a press release.
That did not seem to impress commission chairman Bernard Teague, who asked the Victorian Government to provide the commission with further details of its plans.
Those details have now been submitted and the Victorian Government explains two major initiatives – the development of township protection plans and the establishment of what it is calling “neighbourhood safer places”.
Both of the programs are to be administered by the Victorian Country Fire Authority and local participation and engagement are said to be crucial.
The submission says the state government intends to pilot the protection plans in up to 50 communities by the start of the next fire season that will “address the specific needs of their town’s people, property, assets, environment and economy”.
They may include things like the identification of neighbourhood safer places, the potential commissioning and maintenance of refuges and the use of CFA brigade sirens.
But the reinstatement of community refuges and sirens are two issues the commission’s interim report is expected to deal with.
The Victorian Government says its neighbourhood safer places would be a place of last resort for people to flee to and would protect them from radiant heat.
It is this proposal that particularly concerns a key commission witness, the University of Melbourne fire ecologist Dr Kevin Tolhurst.
He points out that 113 of the 173 Black Saturday victims died in houses.
“It worries me that we’re going to identify one house slightly safer than the one beside it and we’re going to expect people to go there,” he said.
“We’ve actually seen from the evidence given of the fires from Black Saturday, that people were doing that and died as a consequence.
“We don’t want more of the same and I guess what I’m expecting to see from the commission is perhaps some insights and ways of moving forward that we haven’t practised before.
“I guess what I see in the state submission here is basically continuing on and perhaps just doing more of the same, when I think what we saw was a lack of real community engagement.
“Community engagement isn’t just about having public meetings. And reading this extra five-page submission, it’s really about having more public meetings, and I don’t think that’s going to contact enough people that need to be contacted.”
He says local government needs to be involved in a much larger way.
“Certainly it needs to be a multi-pronged approach to ensure that everyone has made a positive decision, is fully aware of the danger and the risk that they face,” he said.
“A combination of local government input from a planning point of view, with the Country Fire Authority’s fire expertise, is needed.
“It needs to be effectively a doorknocking process where you’re sure that you’ve actually contacted everyone.
“If resources get used to bolster existing systems, it will limit the ability to change direction and the whole process of improving public safety.”