Most fire victims failed to prepare

FORTY-FOUR per cent of those who died in the Black Saturday fires had a disability, were in ill health or were aged over 69 or under 12, and one woman was eight months pregnant, the Bushfires Royal Commission was told yesterday.
In the first detailed analysis of 172 fatalities to be made public, Professor John Handmer also reported that several couples had argued over what to do, with the man in each case wanting to stay.
“There are several instances where women who fled survived,” he said. “There is also evidence of disagreement where women stayed, leading to more fatalities.”
Fifty-eight per cent of those who died made no preparations for fire, with 53 per cent having no fire plan, and 25 per cent having no general knowledge of bushfire.
“A few fatalities were in denial of the fire threat to the last, purposefully ignoring — in some cases, mocking — the advice of friends, relatives or agencies,” said Professor Handmer. “These people had made a conscious decision to take no action.”
The findings by Professor Handmer, a disaster management expert at the Centre for Risk and Community Safety at RMIT, and two other researchers, prompted a fierce attack on the stay-or-go policy by senior counsel Jack Rush, QC, who asked whether the policy should be buried as it had failed to prompt many people to prepare.
Only 20 per cent of those who died were well prepared to stay and defend, while a further 14 per cent had made some attempt. This was despite the fact the definition of “prepared” was minimal: a water supply and mops and buckets to use as firefighting equipment.
Professor Handmer agreed the policy required a great deal of re-evaluation. Fourteen per cent of people died trying to flee, even though the policy warned late evacuation was likely to be deadly, and 27 per cent died in bathrooms, a place the policy had not suggested for refuge.
Mr Rush suggested the room might have been chosen because it had water and no windows that could explode and allow embers in.
Some children were found dead in little more than bathers, despite warnings to cover up, and one-third of those who died were in houses that might not have been defendable. Strong winds left some homes defenceless by lifting roofs or blowing windows in, he said.
But people unexpectedly survived by sheltering in cars, sometimes by moving from one site to another to avoid heat and flames. There was not a single fatality among women and children trying to evacuate by car.
Professor Handmer speculated that modern cars might provide better protection than in the past, and said there was also evidence that modern homes were less defendable because they were often large and had two storeys.
Thirty-four per cent of those who died had intended to stay and defend, 26 per cent had wanted to wait and see, 15 per cent had no discernible intentions, eight per cent stayed to shelter but not defend, and 16 per cent had intended to leave. The report said few of those who died had contingency plans, and 30 per cent were taken by surprise by fire.
Professor Handmer agreed fire agencies had known for more than a decade that many people ignored the policy and planned to wait and see on a fire-danger day.