Australia — Almost a third of residents living in bushfire-prone areas say they are prepared to ”wait and see” before evacuating, leaving whole communities in NSW risking a high number of fatalities if they experience ”Black Saturday” bushfire conditions.
Experts warn the high ”wait-and-see” response would almost certainly lead to death tolls after surveying residents in hamlets and suburbs including Captains Flat, Diggers Camp, Hornsby Heights, Kandos, Leura, Nelson Bay and Walla Walla in NSW.
A recently released analysis of the research’s implications comes at a time when fuel loads of dried-out vegetation after three years of above-average rainfall in many areas of NSW have led to almost two-thirds of the state being declared as facing an above-average risk of bushfires.
And forecasts of lower-than-average rainfall in the next three months have raised fears of a terrifying bushfire season.
Final findings after interviewing 600 residents in a survey updated earlier this year were published by the Bushfire Co-operative Research Council last month.
Evidence presented to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission after Black Saturday fires that claimed 173 lives suggested a significant number of deaths may have been averted if residents had made and acted on decisions earlier.
Research author Professor Jim McLennan, an adjunct professor in the La Trobe university’s school of physiological sciences, said the third nominating they would wait and see was a surprise.
He had expected the study would show only 5 per cent to 10 per cent would be prepared to adopt the high-risk strategy.
He said: ”The problem with waiting and seeing is that it is opting for the possibility that you will either have to fight for your life or you will be fleeing at the last minute.”
Asked if the choice could cost lives, he added: ”Certainly, it may well and that would most likely occur under Black Saturday-type conditions where there are really strong winds, fires are spotting well ahead of the main fire-front and communications are chaotic.
”There has been a reluctance in ordering people to leave their castle because of the possibility of a bushfire.”
The CRC found 29 per cent of people faced by extreme bushfire conditions would ”wait and see” before deciding to leave or stay.
Professor McLennan found those nominating a ”wait and see” approach did so out of fear of making the wrong decision, making the best choice between two unpleasant alternatives – what social scientists call ”avoidance-avoidance” conflict.
Of that group, only a quarter had prepared a household plan with a measured and thought-through program of how they would respond and when.
The survey identified that 24 per cent of people would stay and defend their homes and 47 per cent who would leave their homes as soon as possible.
The dangers of such a strategy have been further highlighted in separate research, with a study of 825 bushfire deaths in Australia in 260 bushfires going back to the start of the last century.
The CSIRO study shows 70 per cent of bodies of victims were found within 1000 metres of their house, suggesting the ”wait and see” choice had been fatal on many occasions.
Author Justin Leonard at the government science agency said: ”It really consolidates this idea that people are losing their lives in late evacuations in close proximity to the house. The house is their focus and it is the reason why they are making very late departures during the fire event and they don’t get very far from their house before they are fatally exposed to fire.”
He added: ”Leaving a structure that is still intact is at the point of being suicidal once the effects of fire are around you.”
The Bushfire CRC found seeking safety of the family was the main driver for those who said they would leave as soon as possible. The practice of telling people to evacuate worked in fires around Coonabarabran earlier last year where more than 50 properties were destroyed but, after residents were sent text messages to ”Evacuate now”, no lives were lost.
Mr McLennan said: ”People’s perception is that if it happens at all, it will happen somewhere else, to someone else. For any given household it’s a low probability but, if it happens, it’s catastrophic.”