Australia — The Deputy Mayor of Adelaide has proposed the introduction of a bushfire billeting system to provide people with a safe place to go should they be faced with a catastrophic fire warning.
The new national warning system was brought in this year in response to the Black Saturday bushfires to hopefully prevent a similar loss of life.
When the fire service declares a code red catastrophic bushfire warning, it means that any fires that do break out will be uncontrollable and probably kill people in their path.
The rating means that thousands of homes could be destroyed and that leaving is the best option for survival.
But some people do not have anywhere to go, as Adelaide City Council Deputy Mayor Michael Henningsen found out.
Councillor Henningsen is an orthopaedic surgeon and his anaesthetist was caught out by a recent catastrophic fire warning.
“They’d been told to evacuate and that was their bushfire plan. She turned to me and said ‘Michael, we had nowhere to go,'” he said.
“It hadn’t actually occurred to me that of course all her family and close friends were in the UK and the friends she’s made while she’s been in Adelaide living in Sterling, of course, they live in Sterling.
“They’re her neighbours, the people round the corner, the people down the street and they were all in the same boat.”
He says going to a motel is not an option for everyone, as they often do not cater for people’s animals.
“You might say, ‘Oh go to a hotel or something like that,’ but it’s pretty hard to take a dog or a cat to a hotel with you as well,” he said.
“So there are people being caught you see on these days when the Government declares, or the CFS declares, a day of catastrophic danger.”
Cr Henningsen says a billeting system, where city residents offer temporary board to people who have been told to flee, is one option to overcome the problem.
“I think it’s certainly one of the options we should look at in the short-term,” he said.
“The plan is to have declared safe areas in the communities where people can go to, but most of those are not in place yet.
“The Government’s been pro-active in terms of adopting the recommendations of the Royal Commission in terms of declaring catastrophic days and things like that and raising the awareness, but the next step on, building the infrastructure for the safe areas and things like that, in a lot of communities is not in place yet.”
The Adelaide City Council was so impressed by the Deputy Mayor’s proposal, that they are looking to fast-track a pilot billeting program, to start before this year’s bushfire season ends.
The idea has the support of the organisation that represents more than 15,000 volunteers in South Australia’s Country Fire Service (CFS).
CFS Volunteer Association executive director Wendy Shirley says the proposal overcomes some of the limitations of the catastrophic fire warning.
“It’s an interesting idea and certainly one worth exploring,” she said.
“It’s early days yet in this whole new fire danger rating system and it certainly would stand to reason that there are people up in the hills who would have nowhere else to go.”
Ms Shirley says the billeting system would provide people with an alternative.
“If they don’t have any friends or relatives in Adelaide that they can go to on such a day, this proposal might be the solution for them,” she said.
“If such a scheme was found to be viable I think it would overcome some of the difficulties involved with the catastrophic fire danger rating.”
South Australia’s Emergency Services Minister Michael Wright says he will refer the idea to CFS experts on the bushfire task force to consider.
Cr Henningsen says he hopes the Local Government Association will also back the billeting program, so it can be introduced in councils around Australia.
“I think this sits really well with local government because they’re the grass roots people who actually know where the people live and have those contacts; and certainly between neighbouring councils,” he said.
“I mean we just had Australia Day, this is about being Australian. Isn’t this about mateship and looking after your mate? Being there in times of need? I mean that’s one of the things that defines as a nation isn’t it?”