Bushfire commission to examine mass evacuations

MASS evacuations of people in bushfire-prone areas might have to be considered on future days of extreme danger to try to avoid another Black Saturday, the royal commission on the disaster has been told.
On its opening in Melbourne yesterday, the commission heard that people who stayed to defend their homes on February 7 were “entirely unaware” of the severity of what they faced.
“Fireballs seemingly of atomic force came before the fire,” said Jack Rush, QC, counsel assisting the commission, in opening remarks. “Such fires create their own weather and are beyond the most sophisticated attempts to control them.”
Australia’s “stay or go” policy, allowing people to make their own decisions on days of extreme danger, was unique and would be a key focus of the commission, Mr Rush signalled.
He compared the experience of Victoria with that of the United States, where evacuation is seen as the safest approach at times of high danger.
In the 2007 California fires, which destroyed 3069 houses, nearly 1 million residents were evacuated from 350,000 homes, and only 10 people died, he said. In Victoria on February 7, more than 2000 homes were destroyed and 173 people died.
The commission of inquiry into what Mr Rush called the nation’s “greatest peacetime disaster” would examine whether an evacuation policy would be suitable in some places on extreme days, he said.
“Some particular areas of this state, as a consequence of habitat and topography … are indefensible from a fire-fighting point of view,” he said.
Mr Rush said evidence would be presented demonstrating that on February 7 many people remained in their homes unaware of approaching fires until it was too late. He said the official “leaving early” advice from authorities suggested that residents make a decision on whether to stay or leave by 10am on an extreme fire danger day.
But by 10am and even midday on February 7, there was little fire activity in Victoria.
“There was no reported fire in Kilmore East, Horsham, Kinglake, Marysville, Strathewen, Callignee, Bendigo or Coleraine,” he said.
“Why would a resident of any of the fire-affected regions implement the ‘Go’ part of the policy if they were not aware of any fire threat?”
Mr Rush also said that while Victorians knew in advance that February 7 was a day of extreme risk, they did not understand there was a chance of “a fire that could not be fought”.
He said a rating of 12 to 25 on the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index was considered high and a rating over 50 extreme. “The index on 7 February reached previously unrecorded levels ranging from 120 to 180.”
The blazes probably reached an intensity of 100,000 kilowatts per square metre. “The maximum intensity for control of forest fires is about 4000 kilowatts per metre,” Mr Rush said.
He said the commission would hear evidence that communications failed to cope on February 7, with warnings falling behind the advancing fires and the way they developed after a wind change.
He said the commission would scrutinise the websites of fire-fighting organisations and assess “the ability to track fires at all”. Warnings needed to be accurate and timely, he said. “Underpinning such warnings is the ability for agencies to rapidly analyse on-the-ground intelligence, to monitor risks as they emerge and develop, predict future impacts and point to the best course of action.”
Another issue raised by Mr Rush yesterday was the decommissioning over time of emergency refuges set up after the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires.
“Questions as to uniform standards, the legal liability of local councils who maintained them and the risk people may drive to refuges in dangerous circumstances have been raised as reasons for decommissioning,” he said.
Mr Rush said a new national building standard, adopted soon after February 7, failed to cover important questions for fire-prone areas. The commission would look at issues including building maintenance, exit before and after fires, bunkers, water and power.
He said some houses built to the highest standards had burned to the ground, so the inquiry had commissioned analysis on a street-by-street basis to help make findings about building codes.
Mr Rush also raised concerns surrounding fuel reduction, saying it was constrained by complex rules. “Many municipalities in high-risk bushfire areas have a land management overlay, an environmental significance overlay, a vegetation protection overlay, a wildfire management overlay,” he said. “On their face, the planning provisions appear complex and bureaucratic.”
Due to time constraints, the commission’s eight-week block of hearings beginning on May 11 will examine only warnings and the stay-or-go policy.
Commission chairman Bernard Teague said the inquiry could meet its deadlines only if it limited the issues it addressed and looked at the more critical issues first, with a focus on saving lives.
Mr Rush said remaining questions, including causes of the fires, would be addressed after the interim report was delivered in August. Discussion papers would be published on some topics.
The interim report might have suggestions about the stay-or-go policy but would not have a recommendation about whether the scheme should be replaced, Mr Rush said. The final report is due in July 2010.
The commission’s hearings will be streamed on the internet.
First published in The Age.