Australia — A firefighting policy of focusing exclusively on protecting lives, with little regard for saving property, is set to be reviewed as part of a shake-up of the Fire and Emergency Services Authority.
An inquiry into the Perth Hills bushfires, conducted by former Australian Federal Police chief Mick Keelty, is expected to raise questions about whether the FESA policy may have led to unnecessary loss of property. The expected recommendation will mirror issues raised by fire management expert Stuart Ellis in his FESA-commissioned review of the fires.
He said the evacuation policy “comes at a cost – house loss”.
“By removing residents in the face of the fire, there is an increased likelihood of property loss,” his report said. “There is also an increased chance of survival.”
Mr Ellis concluded the policy was nevertheless appropriate in the circumstances.
At the height of the fire, radio dispatches to crews said: “Life is more important than houses. “Make sure if there are people within the fire area, evacuate them and (do) not worry about the houses.”
Mr Keelty, whose report should be released in weeks, came under criticism yesterday for not interviewing the Roleystone bushfire brigade, which was first on the scene of the fire.
Brigade captain Noel Plowman said he was surprised none of the brigade was asked to give evidence. The Keelty inquiry heard from other volunteer brigades, including Jandakot and Bassendean.
Mr Plowman said he believed the conditions on the day were so catastrophic, there was no choice but to evacuate.
“It was just absolute bedlam in the first 40 minutes,” he said.
“I’ve been in the brigade 30 years and seen some big fires, but never anything like that, how quickly it spread.
“I’m surprised we didn’t lose a lot more houses.
“We are extremely fortunate no one was killed.”
Shadow emergency services minister Margaret Quirk said the policy of preservation of life at all costs was laudable but not well communicated to the public. “In the context of people making the decision to stay or go, in the lead-up weeks and months when people have the chance to do their preparations, it has not been impressed upon them that firefighters are going to leave houses to burn if lives are at risk,” she said.