Australia — For the first time, Victorians will now be urged to evacuate their homes on ”catastrophic fire risk” days.
From today the ”stay and defend” bushfire message will be discarded from official warnings on days when authorities believe home owners could lose their lives while attempting to save their properties.
Black Saturday, when 173 people died – many while trying to defend their homes – would have been deemed a ”catastrophic risk” or code red day under Victoria’s new bushfire warning policy. Four other days last summer would have been forecast as code red for specific regions.
Until now, home owners have always been given the choice to leave early or stay and defend their property no matter how severe the fire threat.
While the new policy does not give authorities the right to forcibly remove anyone from a property, it alters the advice that communities will be given – leaving residents with no doubt about the risks they may face if they stay put.
Victorians will be advised that on a code red day, the safest option is to leave their property the night before, or early in the morning.
Fire agencies and the Bureau of Meteorology expect that Victoria will experience at least one statewide ”catastrophic risk” day each fire season.
In the wake of the Bushfire Royal Commission’s interim findings, the new ”stay or go” policy’s focus is on saving lives not protecting property.
The system recommends specific actions for each of the six previously announced fire danger days: low-moderate, high, very high, severe, extreme and code red (catastrophic).
The unveiling of the new system today follows last week’s criticism from Jack Rush, QC, counsel assisting the royal commission, who said Victoria was lagging behind New South Wales in its release of the new, nationally agreed warning system.
The Brumby Government says it had always intended to release the details today to mark the start of Bushfire Action Week. The bushfire season officially begins in Victoria on October 28.
The states’ policies are similar, except NSW’s says ”lives will be lost” on a code red day and that ”even well-prepared and constructed homes will not be safe”.
Victoria’s policy has softer language. The warning says: ”People may die or be injured; thousands of homes or businesses may be destroyed; and well-prepared, well-constructed homes may not be safe during a fire.”
Premier John Brumby urged Victorians to act now on establishing a bushfire survival plan, including options for relocation.
”The clear direction to people in bushfire-prone areas on a code red (catastrophic) day is that the safest option is to leave early,” Mr Brumby said.
From today, the Bureau of Meteorology and fire agencies will determine the fire rating for each day. This will be based on the Fire Danger Index, a scale from one to 100 that factors in wind, temperature, humidity and drought. A code red day is above 100.
Under the new policy, people will be told to check their bushfire survival plans when the fire danger is low-moderate and high. At very high fire danger, residents are urged to leave at the start of the day if, under their bushfire survival plan, they have decided not to defend their home.
When the fire danger index climbs to about 50, the day will become a severe fire risk. Again, residents are urged to leave early and stay only if the home is ”well prepared and you can actively defend it”.
The recommended action is the same for extreme fire danger days, except that the warning says the home must also be ”well constructed” as well as ”well prepared”.
Total fire bans will still be declared by the Country Fire Authority. They will, in general, occur at the level of severe fire danger risk, and higher.