Black Saturday bushfire victims still uneasy five years on

Black Saturday bushfire victims still uneasy five years on

07 February 2014

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Australia — On the fifth anniversary of the Black Saturday fires, residents of Kilmore, north of Melbourne, have called for more safety zones and fire refuges across Victoria.

The Kilmore East fire was one of the most significant fires burning on February 7, 2009.

In 12 hours, 173 lives were lost and thousands of homes were destroyed.

Kevin Butler’s farm is close to where the worst bushfire started and he says too many of the recommendations made by the Bushfires Royal Commission have not been implemented.

“Local government and the authorities have really been asleep at the wheel five years after Black Saturday,” he said.

Kilmore, like many other towns across Victoria, still has no designated “safer place” or refuge for people to flee to.

“That is irresponsible of local government and irresponsible of the authorities and it is entirely bureaucratic,” he said.

The president of the Kilmore and district residents and ratepayers association, Annie Goble, says she has been told by authorities that there is no location around Kilmore which is “defendable.”

“If there is nothing that is defendable, then what can we do to make existing places like [a local school] or the Kilmore Turf Club defendable,” she said.

She says residents feel frustrated, disappointed and “some people are very angry.”

“I’m confused because I don’t understand why somewhere has not been identified,” Ms Goble said.

“I’ve been given about four or five different reasons, insurance was one, radiant heat was another.”

Recommendations remain ‘untested’

Almost a third of the recommendations made by the Black Saturday Royal Commission have yet to be implemented.

The director of the RMIT University Centre for Risk and Community Safety, Professor John Hanmer says Victoria is probably in a worse state of preparedness for a Black Saturday scenario than it was five years ago.

Such a scenario would require a long heatwave and violent winds at the end of a drought.

“We’re better off in terms of the bushfires we get every couple of years, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.

“But in terms of the Black Saturday scenario, I’m not sure that we are better off yet.”

Professor Hanmer said many of the recommendations which had been adopted would assist with better outcomes, but that they still remain largely untested.

“The sorts of changes, the major changes that have taken place that would effect a Black Saturday scenario are the institutional changes of how the emergency is managed, and we don’t know how that would play out in reality,” he said.

“The other changes that are occurring such as the planning changes, the changes to warning systems, the changes to where the responsibility should lie in terms of individuals for taking responsibility for their own preparations, the evidence of that is that we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Adding to the problem is the fact many new residents who are inexperienced with bushfires have moved into regional towns and Melbourne’s urban fringe in the past five years.

“There’s evidence that people have become more knowledgeable about the risk and about what they should do for their own safety, but there’s evidence that they’re not doing it,” he said.

But both Professor Hanmer and Mr Butler commend authorities for bringing in new alerts and safety warnings.

“I think that the Government, through channels like the ABC and other media, have been exemplary,” Mr Butler said.

“I think you almost have to be behind a rock not to know that there are imminent dangers coming up with total fire ban days.”

“I think the communication has been outstanding.”

Paying tribute to the victims

Yesterday the Victorian Parliament paused to remember those affected by the fires.

Relatives of those killed in the fires were in Parliament to hear condolence speeches from MPs, Premier Denis Napthine and Opposition leader Daniel Andrews.

“All Victorians suffered a great sense of heartache and sadness,” Dr Napthine said.

“Black Saturday brought unprecedented horrific conditions and devastating fires that tore apart families, communities and our great state.”

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