Some bushfire changes delayed: Vic govt

Some bushfire changes delayed: Vic govt

5 October 2009

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Australia — A swag of recommendations from the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission won’t be implemented in time for the new fire season.

The government warns the new season could be more devastating than the previous season when the Black Saturday disaster occurred.

The bushfire season begins in about three weeks. By then, Victorians should be able to access a one-stop website for bushfire information and community warning sirens will be in place.

But Acting Premier Rob Hulls said the government won’t have implemented 11 of the commission’s 51 interim recommendations by the start of the bushfire season.

“This fire season will be every bit as dangerous as last season, if not more so,” Mr Hulls told reporters on Monday.

The state government, which handed its implementation plan to the commission on Monday, has yet to reach a deal with commercial radio stations to disseminate bushfire information as the ABC does.

Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron said the government has faced some resistance from commercial radio because of the air time commitment involved.

“I’m hopeful that we can enter into an arrangement during the course of the remainder of the year,” Mr Cameron said on Monday.

Under the national telephone warning system, which Telstra will run, alerts will be sent to landlines and mobile phones according to their billing addresses. But the second phase, in which messages could be sent to mobiles at their location, won’t be considered until early next year.

Upgrades to the bushfire information line to enable it to deal with a surge in calls during extreme events is expected to be completed by November 1.

New equipment has to be purchased, computers upgraded and extra call centre staff recruited.

Existing locations to be used as fire refuges, such as car parks and sporting grounds, will be allocated to each of the state’s 52 bushfire hotspots.

But some communities will have a designated place in their region, rather than in their town.

The designated places, which Mr Hulls stressed should only be used as a last resort and would not guarantee safety, are scheduled to be identified by the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and local councils before the end of November.

Government lawyer Allan Myers QC told the commission there will be no new refuges constructed until the 2010-11 fire season.

He said individuals, not CFA members, would be responsible for assessing the defendability of their properties using information available online and on a CD.

The commission had recommended that the CFA consider training members to help the public assess the defendability of their homes.

But Mr Myers said it was not practical for CFA volunteers to go to every household in Victoria to make an assessment.

CFA head Russell Rees, who has been criticised over the way he handled the Black Saturday bushfires that killed 173 people earlier this year, will oversee emergency services’ response if bushfires are burning state-wide.

When challenged on why the Labor state government failed to implement some of the measures recommended by previous bushfire royal commissions, Mr Hulls said the government had made it clear it would implement all the recommendations from the present commission.

“We will be judged by the royal commission in relation to the progress of the implementation of those recommendations,” he said.

The opposition wants an independent ombudsman to ensure the recommendations are implemented.

Mr Hulls said the commission would review the government’s progress in implementing its recommendations in March.

The commission will hand down its final report by July 31 next year.

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