Fire evacuations ‘should be compulsory’

  Fire evacuations ‘should be compulsory’

17 August 2009

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Australia — It is ludicrous that Australia is one of the only countries in the world without mandatory evacuations from bushfires, the firefighters’ union says.

Speaking after an interim report by the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission recommended communities could ‘relocate’ rather than ‘evacuate’ in the event of a fire, United Firefighters Union national secretary Peter Marshall said he was concerned the report would be lost in politics and spin.

“We’re extremely disappointed we’re the only country in the world that has a policy that does not mandate evacuation,” Mr Marshall told reporters.

“It is ludicrous, we haven’t learned from our failings or loss of life that we’ve seen.

“Certainly we’re very concerned that we are going to see a repeat of it.

“Evacuation is evacuation, not relocation.

“It has a sense of urgency for a reason. That is you need to evacuate people because they are going to lose their life.”

Mr Marshall said there needed to be a compulsion for the government to implement the commission’s recommendations.

He said he was concerned about the level of spin surrounding the report.

“We need to get back to fundamentals. Without fear or favour the royal commission is charged with investigating why 170 people lost their lives, why (113) people were in their home when they lost their life.

“We’re very concerned that this will be another case of do nothing, other than media spin.”

Meanwhile, a man who lost his house but survived the Black Saturday bushfires says the main recommendations from the royal commission are “common sense”.

Michael Harper said while he had not had a chance to review the full interim report, recommendations including the provision of local refuges and a clarification of the “stay or go” policy had his support.

“The main one for everyone is the stay or go policy. Ideally it should be reworded,” he said.

“From the things I saw (on Black Saturday) there is no question in my mind that you should leave but to weigh up the options you need the correct information.”

Refuges would offer safety for fire-threatened residents who had run out of options, he said.

“Ideally you should get out well ahead but if you are stuck in the thick of it you need a safe place to escape,” Mr Harper said.

Mr Harper, his wife and two children are living in a rented barn cellar while waiting to rebuild their Kinglake home.

A bushfire expert says the changes laid out in the Bushfires Royal Commission interim report won’t remove one major risk in the coming fire season.

The 51 recommendations in the report, released on Monday, focus on establishing early fire risk warnings, relocation plans to include fire refuges and a reorganisation of fire services command.

While those recommendations will considerably help, it is dangerous to assume they will eliminate a known risk that turns small bushfires into out-of-control infernos, said David Packham, a former CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology forecaster of fire conditions.

“The fire doesn’t know who’s in charge and it doesn’t care,” he said following the release of the report.

Mr Packham said the overwhelming problem is the high fuel loads of wood and brush laying on the ground of Victoria’s forests.

“The state of the fuels leads directly to the state of the threat,” he said.

“It will not be all right as we go into next season. It will be just as dangerous.”

Fuel reductions will be discussed in the second part of the commission’s hearings.

A report on those findings won’t be released until July 2010 – after this fire season.

Mr Packham said a strong fuel management plan could drastically reduce the state’s fire risk.

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