Homes at risk as people flee even low-threat fires

Homes at risk as people flee even low-threat fires

3 January 2010

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Australia — The strong emphasis on leaving early during a bushfire could result in the destruction of millions of dollars worth of property that might otherwise be defended, some firefighters are warning.

NSW firefighters, who have battled several blazes in the past two months, found an ”overwhelming majority” of people had abandoned their homes, even during fires of relatively low intensity.

The Sunday Age is aware of State Government research suggesting many Victorians also plan to leave their homes at the first threat of fire. The determination to flee has deepened since the new national fire danger ratings were issued last year.

”Since August, there’s been a very noticeable attitude in communities just to simply leave,” said Rob Rogers, an assistant commissioner with the NSW Rural Fire Service, who believes the new system goes too far.

”We could end up with quite a high property loss,” he said. And if most residents fled there would be fewer people to douse embers left by the main fire front, increasing the potential for fresh blazes, Mr Rogers said.

Australia’s bushfire regime has undergone radical changes since Black Saturday. The ”stay or go” policy has been altered almost beyond recognition and there is a new emphasis by the CFA on warning the public, with a new ”Emergency Alert” telephone notification system, new national fire danger ratings and clearer warning messages.

The townships at most risk have been put on high alert, and the state has designated 40 neighbourhood safer places to retreat to in an emergency, with 11 more in the pipeline.

The CFA reports a sharp rise in attendance at its briefings due to high public awareness.

However, fire agencies have agreed to meet again after this fire season to review the system.

The Sunday Age has been told Government research found many Victorians planned to go to a ”neighbourhood safer place” as the first option in a fire, even though the CFA says the centres should be used only when all other plans fail.

The CFA is already moving to change the name to ”places of last resort”.

New fire danger ratings were agreed nationally for the first time last year and have deliberately put saving lives ahead of protecting property. The six-stage rating system from ”low-moderate” to ”catastrophic (code red)” recommends that people who are not fully prepared leave early in all but the bottom two categories.

But NSW assistant commissioner Rogers indicated he believed the policy went too far. ”While we’ve subscribed to a national theory, we don’t want to throw away decades of work where at the lower levels people have successfully defended their homes where … they are prepared,” he said.

”We’re happy for you to do it [defend your house] provided you know the risks and are prepared and you don’t have kids and elderly people around. … We don’t want to abandon the whole thing.”

But Victorian Country Fire Authority chief executive Mick Bourke defended the new system. Though he agreed the message might increase the danger of property damage, there was ”not a lot of evidence to support that at the moment”.

Last week’s devastating fires at Toodyay, north of Perth, destroyed 38 homes, but there was no loss of life.

Victoria’s fire season has been subdued so far, partly due to good spring rain. But even during the recent fires near Cann River in East Gippsland, Mr Bourke said, he had heard no reports of a ”large exodus of people from their homes”.

However, Mr Bourke agreed, the national system was unapologetically geared to saving lives.

He conceded it might also affect the way firefighters needed to operate.

While rain had dampened fire behaviour, it was likely to increase fuel growth for the January and February peak season.

Acting Premier Rob Hulls said Victoria was ”better prepared than ever before” for the fire season.

”There are more resources, more staff, more equipment and there is more information for people about how to prepare themselves,” he said.

■ A Lone Pine tree from Gallipoli has been given to the people of Marysville after a donation from Turkish Rotarians. The seedling was presented yesterday as the Government announced a new design framework for the bushfire-ravaged town.

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