Business leaders in Victoria’s north-east say their economy is ”at risk of collapse” if the bushfire warning system is not reworked.
In a submission to the Bushfires Royal Commission, the Bright and District Chamber of Commerce said a code red day declared for north-east Victoria in January this year ”frightened” and ”confused” visitors.
The submission estimated that about 60 per cent of income in the local economy came from tourism and that ”many people are at risk of severe financial distress should the fire warning system continue to operate in its current form”.
The chamber, which represents businesses in Bright and nearby Porepunkah and Wandiligong, warned that the language of the fire-rating system ”was not specific enough”.
It listed a range of responses in the area on the region’s first code red day in January.
A local caravan park owner saw a visitor ”running up and down the rows of caravans, banging on doors and exhorting all other visitors to leave immediately as they were in danger”.
A popular local cafe shut its doors and displayed ”a note that it was shut due to the catastrophic fire danger day”.
A business owner told the chamber: ”We had one little girl crying in a panic, worried about the fire danger alert and was scared that the fire might come and they would be trapped Of course there was not a hint of smoke anywhere.”
The submission said the ”leave early” message caused uncertainty, leaving people wondering whether they should ”leave first thing in the morning, or early in the decision-making process”. It also questioned where people should travel to if they left a code red region. ”Where should they go? To another area subject to code red? Through a fire zone?”
The national fire danger rating system was introduced last year in response to Black Saturday. It features a six-level grading system for fire danger that runs from the highest warning of ”Code Red (Catastrophic)”, down to ”Low-moderate”.
Bright and District Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Jenny MacKinnon said most businesses in the district were small businesses that didn’t have deep financial pockets, which made it harder to cope when revenues were hit by bushfire warnings.
Alpine Shire chief executive Ian Nicholls said local businesses had repeatedly raised concerns about the fire danger rating system.
”We also recognise that the safety of people is paramount as well,” he said. ”But we do believe there are too many loose ends and they need to be addressed. I think the loose ends are about obviously the declaration and the advice to relocate out of the region, which is extremely difficult in country areas, and may expose people even more.”