Australia– Brenda Hickson is 72, has no car, suffers from arthritis and finds it difficult to walk after knee replacement surgery. The retired school teacher lives by herself in the Warburton Caravan Park and she is frightened.
Should a bushfire rush over the nearby hills towards her caravan by the Yarra River, she will have no choice but to evacuate.
”I was told the caravan, being made of plywood, was like a matchbox and burns to the ground in four to six minutes.”
She has good reason to worry. On February 22, when spot fires threatened the town and she was forced, with an 84-year-old neighbour who has cancer, to evacuate, Ms Hickson turned to the authorities for help. She tried the State Emergency Service, the Country Fire Authority, the Red Cross, the Yarra Ranges Shire and the Warburton police. All to no avail.
She was left to rely on the goodwill of a local resident, who drove the pair to the local bus stop so they could travel to the Lilydale emergency relief centre.
Under the State Government’s new fire alert system, Victorians are advised to evacuate their homes on days of highest fire risk – deemed code red. But where they go and how they get there will be largely left up to them.
A spokeswoman for Premier John Brumby told The Sunday Age last week that the Government would take no responsibility for providing transport or emergency accommodation to vulnerable people needing help to evacuate. ”Government and agencies are focused on providing Victorians with the best possible advice in advance but individuals and families will need to make their own judgments about how to respond and what actions to take,” the spokeswoman, Jessica Harris, said.
”People should consider staying with family or friends who live in a low fire risk area and we encourage people to ask around and make tentative arrangements now so they are prepared when there is a fire threat.”
While the Health and Human Services departments are working with the CFA to help the elderly and disabled prepare for the bushfire season, distributing information packs to disability service providers, councils say it has fallen to them to take responsibility for residents.
”There is a real issue about what happens to people who are very frail, have disabilities and can’t access public transport and perhaps don’t have a lot of support to leave,” said Alison Cran, Yarra Ranges Shire social and economic development director.
”Where do they go?”
Many councils are relying on the Community Indicators Victoria website, based on outdated figures from a 2006 government survey, to determine who will need help in the event of a bushfire. Figures for Yarra Ranges Shire show that while 93 per cent of the 145,000 residents believed they could get help from family or friends in a fire emergency, 10,000 did not.
The Nillumbik Shire Council – where areas such as North Warrandyte, Plenty Gorge, Christmas Hills and St Andrews are especially prone to fire risk because of poor access and water supply – is one of several councils considering introducing a ”buddy” program to help those in need as part of its heatwave plan.
The program is designed to help anyone unable to formulate their own bushfire survival plan, particularly the elderly and disabled.
Participants will be able to register with the council and be matched with a volunteer who will help them.
Councils are also required under municipal emergency management plans to designate local emergency relief centres, with facilities for sheltering and feeding emergency-affected people and their pets.
Victoria Police say more than 50 registers for at-risk and isolated senior citizens have been set up across the state to be used as an early-warning system to deal with heatwaves and bushfires. It hopes to eventually expand the registers to cover everyone aged over 65 and those with disabilities. Officers and volunteers will regularly contact those on the register when an emergency has been declared to ask if they have an evacuation plan and need help.
But Opposition bushfire response spokesman Peter Ryan believes the Government should be doing more to help vulnerable Victorians in fire-prone areas. “There are many frail members of the community who have no means of transporting themselves or their pets away from danger,” he said.
“The Government claims the onus is on the individual to care for themselves in an emergency, but this is an impossible task for some.”
Ms Hickson, who sent a submission to the Bushfires Royal Commission pleading for help for people in her situation, is not optimistic.
Last summer, when she asked her local police sergeant for help, she was told: ”Look, people just want to get the Government to do everything for them. If they can get out to do the shopping, they can get out if there’s a fire.”