CFA chief calls for rethink on building in the bush

CFA chief calls for rethink on building in the bush

8 August 2009

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Australia — The days of Victorians building in precarious bushfire zones appear numbered.

CFA boss Russell Rees yesterday called for a harsh re-examination of attitudes to building and vegetation, saying councils must take a greater role in helping to prevent another Black Saturday.

And Premier John Brumby has pledged to have more DSE firefighters back-burning and clearing scrub from properties and roadsides earlier for this summer’s fire season.

On the six-month anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires that killed 173 people and destroyed thousands of homes, Mr Brumby announced plans to boost the DSE firefighter numbers to about 700 to work alongside the more than 2700 permanent firefighters and about 60,000 CFA volunteers to make Victoria safer.

Acknowledging his own personal pain after the fires, Mr Rees said Victoria had no option but to be ready for the next fire season.

And he has steeled himself for the royal commission interim report, saying that he had expected to be carefully scrutinised by the process.

Mr Rees reserved his toughest warnings for councils that allow houses to be built in areas that can’t be defended, calling for a state-wide debate about planning and clearing vegetation.

The debate needed to start, he told the Herald Sun, by involving councils.

He is not criticising the community at large.

“And the debate is not a debate to shy away from,” he said.

“What I am putting on the agenda is we know that we as an emergency service organisation have some improving to do.

“Our focus is on that, but let’s not forget the other layers of the (fire prevention) cake.”

In a wide-ranging interview, he also confirmed a Herald Sun report that he would stay in the job for two years.

He also said:

Sam the koala had been a symbol of hope and survival after the fires.

The stay-or-go policy was complex and needed to be more carefully explained.

The highest risk fire areas continued to be in a 100km ring around Melbourne.

No one’s safety could be guaranteed in a repeat of Black Saturday; the only sure way of surviving was not to be in the area when fire hits.

Community safety zones would be set up, but could be as simple as highlighting the safest house in an area.

Mr Rees said he was a believer in climate change.

This meant communities needed to get smarter and be more effective in the way they dealt with fire risk.

Mr Rees was careful not to criticise individuals, aiming his concerns at councils.

His comments follow wide concern about where some houses are built, dug into the side of mountains, surrounded by tall timber and with no hope of being saved.

Mr Rees described some roadside vegetation as “linear fuses”.

And the State Government is calling on Victorians to get out their shears and axes to clean-up their communities in the October bushfire preparedness week.

“The fire season is less than 100 days away and it’s vital that we are all ready,” Mr Brumby said.

“We need to keep working together to help fire-affected individuals, families and communities get back on their feet – as well as prepare for the coming fire season.”

Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority chairwoman Christine Nixon cautioned that some people were struggling with life after the fires.

“The rebuilding process will be a long, difficult and at times overwhelming task but I am encouraged by the resilience, determination and strength of people,” she said in her six-monthly report into the fires.

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