Australia–– Official advice to areas at risk of blazes raises its own Code Red.
FIRE season will be with us before we know it. I have a suggestion. Before it arrives, we should examine the errors and inaccuracies in some of the changes in official bushfire safety advice since 2009’s Black Saturday.
Changes have thrown out some of the safety with the scapegoats. People didn’t die and homes were not destroyed because Christine Nixon went out to dinner instead of taking her sandwiches to work, nor because they stayed to defend their homes.
The CFA website, and others Australia-wide, says: ”Even people who are extremely well prepared can die fighting fires at home.” This is not what the scientific research says.
The website also says: ”If you live in a high-risk bushfire area, your home will not be defendable on a Code Red day.” FireReady adds the qualification ” no matter how well prepared it is”. This, too, is not what the research says. Advertisement
The research, ”Review of fatalities in the February 7, 2009, bushfires”, was conducted by bushfire scientists Professor John Handmer, Damien Killalea and Saffron O’Neil in 2010.
They found that very few of those who died had a comprehensive bushfire safety plan, with 69 per cent dying while sheltering in unsafe places. Of these, 27 per cent were in bathrooms.
Of the 34 per cent of fatalities who had decided to stay and defend, 20 per cent (6.8 per cent of total deaths) were found to be ”well prepared”. ‘Well prepared”, however, meant only that ”appropriate activity” had been undertaken before 1.30pm, when the fires started at Kilmore East.
Less than 1 per cent of the fatalities who had decided to evacuate were found to be well prepared, lacking even a trigger to go and a known destination. Fourteen per cent of these died while fleeing without suitable clothing.
The research findings show unequivocally that people died on that dreadful day not because of the bushfire itself, not because of any emergency controller, not because they stayed to defend their homes, but because they did not know enough about how to react safely.
Historically, most deaths have occurred while evacuating through embers, flames or smoke. A close second is when people outside are not protectively clothed. The third highest is when people shelter inside too far from an exit.
Official claims that even ”well-prepared” homes cannot be saved are demonstrably untrue, readily disproved by the sight of the many that were saved safely on Black Saturday.
No data was obtained by the royal commission on how many people safely and successfully defended their homes.
Some may think it insensitive to apportion victim input to bushfire fatalities and house losses. But when there has been a house fire, we have no qualms about asking, ”Did they have a smoke alarm?” Or when there has been a road accident: ”Were they speeding? Were they over 0.5?” Such victims are even harshly referred to as ”bloody idiots”.
Until we bring the same objectivity towards bushfire tragedies as we do to others, we will not cut down its toll.
On the stay-or-go question, the CFA website says: ”If you live in a high-risk bushfire area, leaving early is your only safe option on Code Red days.” FireReady says: ”Bushfires kill and the only way to ensure your safety is to be well away from the threat.”
Leaving ”early” is neither the only safe option nor the only way to ensure safety.
It can sometimes be impossible to calculate when is early enough to leave. Fires can be raging for days in multiple locations; lightning can start fires at night (in western Victoria, lightning strikes frequently on January afternoons).
Over the past 100 years, more people have died evacuating inappropriately than from any other cause.
Nevertheless, we are now presented with an ”everybody out” policy: the evacuation of whole towns on Code Red days.
Apart from the nightmare logistics, the emptying of towns will mean an escalation of house losses. Vacated houses have the highest percentage of destruction.
House losses in bushfires are not only personal tragedies, they increase the homeless waiting list. The state’s public housing stock is already in crisis. Each house lost to bushfire makes it worse.
Authorities should be doing all they can to reduce, not exacerbate, the loss of homes that could well be saved by their householders. Those who know thoroughly how to safely defend and shelter rarely die.
One of the first actions of bushfire authorities in Fire Action Week should be to correct the errors in their publications.
The next should be to revert to their former practice of openly recommending to the public useful, authoritative resources other than their own publications.