Fire refuges rejected as CFA plays it safe

Fire refuges rejected as CFA plays it safe

22 November 2009

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Australia– The Dandenongs, considered one of the most vulnerable places in Victoria in the event of a bushfire, is unlikely to have a ”neighbourhood safer place” this season because no site meets the Country Fire Authority’s strict criteria.

Despite the early arrival of the bushfire season, it will be almost Christmas before residents of any of the 52 nominated high-risk townships are told where they can go as a last resort if a bushfire threatens their community.

The Country Fire Authority (CFA) and local councils say they are working as fast as they can to sort out the ownership, legal and safety issues of neighbourhood safer places, accusing the State Government of not providing enough assistance.

But Kevin Tolhurst, senior lecturer in fire ecology and management at Melbourne University’s Creswick campus, said authorities missed the point. ”Safer places” should simply be the best option within a district, ”rather than necessarily some 100 per cent guaranteed location”, he said.

The Bushfires Royal Commission recommended in August that ”neighbourhood safer places” be established for people whose houses are indefensible, and who have not left early. The State Government endorsed the idea and has introduced legislation, due to be debated this week, to bring them about.

But the CFA has knocked back hundreds of potential safer places around the state. Even residents of Walhalla, who have used an old mineshaft as a refuge for years, are still waiting to hear if it will be officially designated.

All the proposed safer places in the Dandenongs have been knocked back because they do not meet the criteria.

Residents in the ranges east of Melbourne will now have no choice but to either leave for days at a time during the summer, or try to defend their properties in the event of a catastrophic fire.

VicRoads data reveals it will be extremely difficult to leave, with some areas in the Dandenongs – with a population of 15,000 people – restricted to a single road out.

Under the CFA criteria, a building designated as a safer place needs to be 140 metres from the nearest bushland to protect against radiation. Open refuges such as ovals must be 310 metres from the nearest bushland.

CFA chief executive Mick Bourke said the criteria, borrowed from the NSW fire service, were necessary to protect people.

One of the sites knocked back because it was too close to forest on its eastern side was Olinda’s community house, even though it has been fitted with pumps and a sprinkler system, shutters on the windows, two water tanks and a swimming pool. It also has a large car park, ”standard operating procedures” for use as a refuge, and is well known as a former fire refuge, having been decommissioned under protest in 2005.

”It should be a place of last resort,” said concerned resident Janice Gasking. ”If I was caught on the road, I would rather be there than anywhere else. I know my home is not defendable … and if everyone does what they’re supposed to do and tries to leave, then we could expect gridlocked roads and great difficulty in getting out.”

Ms Gasking said that in the mountains, a location surrounded by hundreds of metres of cleared ground did not exist.

Dr Tolhurst said the vegetation around the Olinda community house could easily be modified to make it safe.

The community will present a petition on the subject to the Shire of Yarra Ranges on Tuesday.

In the past, councils have strongly argued against fire refuges, mainly because of fears of legal liability. But Municipal Association of Victoria chief executive Rob Spence said that was no longer the case, and there was ”no chain-dragging” on safer places.

”Councils are going faster than humanly possible – we just don’t want to get into a situation where people are hurt or injured because the issues have not been properly thought through,” Mr Spence said.

”More support from the state would help, particularly in resource support.”

The CFA’s Mr Bourke said the criteria were strict for safer places because ”we don’t want [people] to burn”.

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