Australia — A royal commission recommendation to set up public bushfire refuges was greeted with some scepticism this week from Marysville survivors of Black Saturday.
The commission’s interim report recommends that existing buildings and open spaces such as sports grounds, racetracks and car parks be used as refuges in preference to purpose-built structures.
But Marysville survivor Daryl Hull, who took refuge at Gallipoli Oval with 60 firefighters and 50 of the area’s residents on Black Saturday, said he was disappointed that underground shelters were not considered.
“The oval was a great saviour for Marysville but I’m still very keen on underground bunkers as even on the oval the radiant heat was fairly intense,” he said.
Another Marysville survivor, Mary Kenealy, was sceptical about fire authorities’ choice of refuges after being directed by emergency workers on Black Saturday to the Cumberland resort, where people later died, and to the golf course, where trees were ablaze.
She said the report’s recommendation to designate refuges would not always be a viable option, as Marysville saw when the town’s safest building, the motor museum built to fire-resistant standards, was inaccessible on Black Saturday. “It was perfectly safe and the entire town could have sheltered in that building but it was locked up and no one could go there,” she said.
The commission’s interim report found that fire refuges were necessary for people whose fire plans had failed, or who were tourists or visitors without fire plans.
It said that since the introduction of the 2005 fire refuges policy no new refuges had been created and many had fallen into disrepair.
The report rejected the idea put forward in the 2005 policy that the refuges’ existence made people less likely to leave early or to draw up fire plans. The 2005 policy is under review by the Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner.
“The current lack of refuges fails to provide for those who find themselves in danger when their plans fail [and] who are away from their homes, such as employees, visitors, tourists, travellers and campers,” the report said. “The new approach should shift the focus away from purpose-built structures acting as refuges and permit the use of existing venues.”
The refuge concept was applauded by Peter Rice, the CFA group officer for the Alexandra district, which includes Marysville. Mr Rice took shelter at Gallipoli Oval with 60 firefighters under his command during Black Saturday. “Gallipoli Oval is a good example of how the concept can work and on February the 7th it saved a lot of lives,” he said.
“It has been something that hasn’t been a high priority for 10 years and I’m extremely pleased to see the refuge concept has been re-implemented, but we have got a huge amount to complete in the next two or three months.”
However, David McGahy, a CFA volunteer captain with Arthurs Creek brigade, said the devil would be in the detail.
“Are brigades going to be expected to defend the refuges? If they are going to do that then authorities or the Government are going to have to supply us with resources to do that job. You can’t be defending a refuge and fighting a fire.
“You can’t be in two places at once. That’s the problem I see there If you decided to take resources away from the fire fight to defend the refuge that’s fair enough, but it’s a very complex question.”
Premier John Brumby said the Government had put forward the proposal to establish refuges and was pleased that it had been adopted by the commission. He refused to say whether a system would be in place before this year’s fire season.
Nationals leader Peter Ryan said refuges were a “sound idea” but called for indemnity against liability arising from refuges for the government or agency responsible for them.