Embers of pain stir in young hearts

BLACK SATURDAY – ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.’ —Graham Greene

MATTHEW is an outdoors boy. He likes fishing, his scooter, his motorbike. Aged 10, he swims and plays basketball and has a dry sense of humour. On Black Saturday, he was eight. That afternoon, he and his mother left their house to take refuge with family. While others fought the firestorm roaring outside, Matthew was told to shelter inside. “What do you want me to do, Mum?” he demanded.
“Once he got past his initial terror, he was right into it,” says his mother, Tania*. “He was still frightened but he kept himself busy.” He put towels under doors and fetched wet face-washers for other distressed children as they all choked on the smoke.
When the fire passed, the house they had been protecting was safe, as were they. But a bewildered Matthew still found himself encircled by loss. His home and everything in it had been burned to the ground. His grandparents had lost their home, which had been the much-loved hub of the family for decades. His school was gone. His neighbours and two schoolfriends had been killed. The landscape of his life — the bushland around Kinglake — was a blackened ruin.
The door to the future had opened.
For Matthew, it was a future strewn with panic attacks. With choking fits that made it hard for him to eat. With nightmares about fire, in the early days, which were followed by dreams of being chased, or of being trapped, or of losing his mother. Even during the day he was often tense. He rarely laughed. He shrank away when anyone mentioned Black Saturday. Young as he was, he understood enough to know he was struggling. He told his mother: “I think I’m going crazy.”
That’s a scary thing for any parent to hear. It’s even scarier for parents who are struggling themselves.
Two years after the Black Saturday fires — the anniversary is on Monday — the physical world is beginning to heal. Trees are leafy and paddocks are lush and neat new houses have sprung up; not enough for everyone to be back under their own roofs, but enough to be a heartening sign of progress.
Emotional wounds can take longer. In bushfire areas, there are still young children wetting the bed, and having nightmares and insomnia. Some have even talked of killing themselves, at an age when kindergarten is only just behind them and the very concept should be foreign. Older children have been caught nicking antidepressants from their mother’s supply in the hope that a single “happy pill” will stop them feeling so sad.
There are children who become hysterical at the sight of a red sunset because it reminds them of flames in the sky. When mist swirled across a wintry road one morning, students on a school bus screamed because they feared it was smoke.
Bushfire-affected teenagers are showing strain too. Lesley Bebbington is a local mother who began a teen youth group in Kinglake after realising that many were coming home from school and locking themselves alone in their rooms night after night.
She says: “We are really concerned at the moment because there are a lot of kids who have just now started to experience their trauma. There are high levels of truancy and more kids accessing welfare officers now than at any time since the fire. That gels with the trauma model, which says that for some people, years two to four are the worst.
“We also noticed last year there was an increase in the use of alcohol and drugs, promiscuity — definitely an increase in that risky behaviour. Kids are talking about suicide, and ‘What’s the point?’ — both face-to-face and online with each other. They just feel there’s not any future so you may as well go the full max and not think about the consequences.”
At the heart of all these problems lies a force with which modern psychology is starting to come to grips: disaster trauma in children.
Children touched by the fires had their first encounter with mortality long before they were ready to make sense of it. Perhaps they nearly died themselves; perhaps friends or family actually did. To that mourning, and fear of sudden death, add the loss of a home and a whole order of life, as well as parents who are themselves distraught and distracted by having to rebuild, and you have a potent mix of pathogens. Survivors of the recent floods and the Queensland cyclone will face similar problems. The good news is that much is now known about how to help children heal.
Dr Paul Valent is a Holocaust survivor and a retired psychiatrist who specialised in trauma. He says it works this way: “Something major has happened that’s implanted in the brain. It’s like a big, dark, gravitational force. Everything has imploded in there. It’s invisible but it’s got enormous energy. You can’t think about it, you can’t talk about it, and you don’t have words for it. It’s overwhelming.”
He says that within weeks of suffering the trauma, the person begins to cut off from feelings about it that are too painful. Those feelings might be expressed instead in physical symptoms. In children, that might be bedwetting, stomach ache or headache, or through behaviour such as screaming or clinging to a parent. Very young children will
re-enact trauma through drawings and play. Valent says a survey in South Australia after the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 found 23 per cent of children in a bushfire community had psychiatric problems, and that in one kindergarten, fire games were still the most popular games 10 months afterwards.
There is likely to be misplaced guilt over what the person did or did not do during the crisis, Valent says, with children particularly prone to blaming themselves. After Ash Wednesday, one girl believed she had caused the whole disaster: “Magical thinking is more prominent in children. She had wished harm to someone, and harm had come.”
He says adults and children “don’t join the dots [over emotional problems causing the physical symptoms] because behind that lies thoughts like, ‘Life has no meaning because I didn’t save so-and-so’ or ‘because I killed so-and-so’. So they disconnect parts of their minds: emotions, thoughts. But when you kill off parts of yourself, you can’t negotiate what you will kill off. If you kill off guilt, you also kill off love. If you cut off from fear, you experience psychic numbing. You can’t be loving and creative and whole any more.”
Young Matthew blamed himself later for not having been brave enough during the fire, his mother, Tania, says. “He felt a lot of guilt. He felt like he wasn’t being brave because he had cried at one point. He was, in fact, amazingly brave but he didn’t want to hear that. He was being very hard on himself.”
Hardest for both of them was Matthew’s loss of faith in her ability to protect him. In the early days, he would ask what if they had done this or that during the fire, and the outcome had been different. She told him she would never have let him be hurt. He retorted that the parents of dead children had probably said that too.
Principal Jane Hayward is looking after a school full of children who have trouble feeling safe, even though the new Strathewen primary, cut into a hillside overlooking the once-devastated valley, is built to withstand near-apocalypse conditions: huge water tanks, a sprinkler system, metal shutters on all windows and doors, GPS positioning in case helicopter water-bombing is needed. “We can go into complete lockdown,” says Hayward.
Half the students here lost their homes — some were convinced they were moments from death as houses burned down around them — and four parents and several grandparents were killed. Many others were displaced because their homes were too damaged to live in, and the school itself was incinerated. “The children have experienced so much trauma, and their individual stories are so extreme, that it’s going to be a long haul,” Hayward says.
She went to bushfire workshops and was discouraged to hear that families “would be fine after three months”: that’s not what she was seeing. It was more than a year later, when she met a psychotherapist experienced in child trauma, that Hayward learned more.
“The kids have developed ‘hyper-vigilance’ because they know that in the blink of an eye, your world can be turned upside down and changed forever.” This means that when they are told a parent has phoned, their first reaction is fear: “Is everything all right?”
While the school still has high expectations of academic performance, that has had to be tempered with understanding of new problems. “What we found with learning is that children seemed to be chugging along and learning normally. And then you would do a test, or score a piece of work, and wonder, ‘What have I done wrong?’ because there were obvious learning gaps.” The psychotherapist explained to Hayward that after trauma there are often Swiss cheese-type holes in concentration, exacerbated by tiredness from lack of sleep — a phenomenon locals call “bushfire brain”.
Sleep is a precious commodity right across bushfire communities. Says Hayward, “On a windy night when the wind roars through [sounding like a bushfire], no one sleeps. The sound is enough to trigger the fear.”
And then comes the occasional crisis when it becomes clear what is at the heart of an individual child’s distress. Bebbington tells of a boy who had a flashback to when his family was fleeing the fire: “He suddenly remembered that when his dad stopped the car, to tell the mother and the rest of the family in the car behind that the road was blocked by a fallen tree, he had felt his dad had left him to die. He had a complete meltdown, out of the blue.”
She says: “I defy anybody to match the resilience of my community and the kids in it, but just because they are resilient and keep going every day doesn’t mean they’re not extremely sad and traumatised.”
At Whittlesea Secondary College, 19 members of the school community died in the fires, including four students and two whole families, as well as parents, staff and school councillors. Sixty families and seven staff lost their homes. A survey found that 392 of the students had been directly affected in some way.
Principal Terry Twomey says: “If you come into the school, you wouldn’t notice anything. There’s plenty of routine and lots of terrific things going on. But there is a lot happening under the surface too. Many are missing friends they lost in the fires and many are missing not living where they used to live. There’s a whole lot of frustration over the rebuild, and there’s all of the financial and relationship issues that have emerged . . . You can never listen too much.”
He says staff are working hard to try to keep students connected to school, because they know they are at risk. “Ash Wednesday data found a lot of young people became disengaged from learning and didn’t go on to tertiary education at all, and there were some significant mental health issues for that cohort down the track . . . They need to see purpose and a future for themselves.”
It sounds like a discouraging cocktail of troubles. But Ruth Wraith, a former head of the department of child psychotherapy at the Royal Children’s Hospital and the trauma specialist who helped the Strathewen teachers, is neither surprised nor alarmed to hear such stories.
Parents should not fear that children are irreparably damaged when they scream at red sunsets, she says, or even when a very young child talks of suicide. “These are symptoms, or reactions, that are messages from the child about what the meaning of the traumatic experience is to that individual child. To understand, we need to know what need the symptom is fulfilling.”
Of talk of suicide, she says: “What does the child mean when he says those words? It might have a very different meaning for a child than it does for adults. It might mean they want to get further away from trigger reminders, or from fighting in the family. They might want to ensure they will never face bushfire again. It may be that somebody has died and they have overheard an adult conversation that this person is at peace now, so perhaps they have concluded: ‘If I die, I will be at peace.’ ”
The same principle applies to understanding troubled teenagers who are relying too much on sex, drugs or alcohol. “In adolescence, it’s normal to feel immortal and invulnerable. That’s why they take the risks they do. Part of adolescence is learning you’re not Superman; learning what the limits are, in a way that allows you to understand the realities of life, without losing your curiosity and your sense of adventure. These teenagers had all that stripped away in an instant, without the chance to develop a gradual understanding of their mortality.”
She says sex for some might be like an addictive drug, an instant good feeling; or a chance to be close to someone without getting involved; or quasi-medicinal — something to numb the pain. US research suggests teenagers who have experienced trauma are more likely to marry and have children young, she says, either because they think they “may as well get on with life and live it in a hell of a hurry because there could be no tomorrow, or else because of a desperate need to be close to someone, to be held and understood”.
If parents are worried about their children or their families, they should act on that awareness and seek advice, she says.
For Matthew, counselling was the key to recovery. Tania says: “He hated counselling. He used to sit with his arms folded, looking out the window. Then one day she said: ‘Tell me about the friends that you lost.’ ”
Matthew began with his schoolfriends, but the dam really burst when he started talking about one of his neighbours — “The shape of his arms when he used to lift Matthew over the fence, and how strong he was, and how funny he was.
“Then he turned to me and said: ‘And I should have gone to his funeral!’ It had been one of the first funerals, and we were struggling, and I had thought: ‘We won’t do this.’
“And quick as a flash, the counsellor said: ‘You need to have your own funeral for him. You plan it and you conduct it the way you want to.’
“So Matthew invited me and my mum and dad. We all had a balloon. We all wrote a message that we kept private and we tied them to the bottom of the strings.
“Then we let them go at the gravesite of the man and his wife. Then Matthew asked my parents lots of questions about the funeral. His main question was: ‘Were they in the same coffin together?’ They said: ‘Yes, they were.’
“Then he just picked up overnight. I noticed he started to laugh more and enjoy things more. The biggest change was when he was faced with information about the fire, or people were talking about what happened to them. He is now able to hear it without it affecting him.”
Her boy is different to how he might have been had there been no fire. He is more perceptive, more compassionate; a little wise beyond his years, she feels.
Jane Hayward says the same of her charges at Strathewen, who are almost painfully attuned to suffering they see on television, such as the Christmas Island boat disaster, or the New Zealand mine catastrophe. “They’ve got an incredible insight into death and loss. It’s a very adult understanding. They have such insight, and empathy . . . They have a real social conscience, a strong need to do good in the world, to fund-raise for our sponsor child. They haven’t got that childhood innocence, where you can just fluff around and have a good time. They are going to be amazing adults. I think they will change the world.”
* The names of Matthew and Tania have been changed to protect Matthew’s privacy.
For help or information, visit www.dhs.vic.gov.au/em/bushfire-recovery/emotional-support, or call Lifeline on 131 114.

Brumby plays fast and loose

POLITICIANS dealing with the aftermath of Black Saturday often wear a yellow ribbon pinned to a lapel. Like the red poppy of Anzac Day, it is meant to be for remembrance. The yellow ribbon was popularised by a 1970s pop song in which a woman tied a hundred of them around an old oak tree to welcome home a lover. Long before it became associated with loyalty, however, yellow was seen as symbolic of another quality: cowardice.
Premier John Brumby wore a yellow ribbon to media appearances last week where he rejected the two big-ticket items recommended by the Bushfires Royal Commission. Victoria will not buy back houses in areas of extreme bushfire danger, nor will the state replace its ageing powerlines with technology that would prevent them sparking fires.
The arguments used to justify these decisions were deeply flawed, if not downright disingenuous.
This is what Brumby told the ABC about rejecting buyback: “The commission highlighted a particular road in Kinglake where lives were lost on February 7. The fact is that many people after the fires . . . wanted to go back and to rebuild on that road and there are many similar roads in Kinglake and other places like Marysville that are just as dangerous, just as forested . . . And how you would ever make a judgment about who would be in and who would be out? I don’t think you could objectively do [that] . . .
“In all of the consultations that we had, nobody could explain to us how this could practically and objectively work, and that’s why we rejected it.”
I had angry phone calls from residents in bushfire areas about those consultations. They were outraged by what they saw as a sham process.
The 24 hearings, attracting 1600 people, seemed to have been cobbled together in a rip-roaring hurry following a report in The Age in which a Callignee resident sneered at what he saw as window-dressing. “You have more press people here than you have members of the community,” the man told the Premier early in his “listening tour”. “If this is community consultation, where are we at?”
One has to wonder whether the bushfire response, like the Windsor Hotel plan and, now, the proposed rail link from Little River to Southern Cross Station, were all designed to be pushed through by those who think they know best with no real input from the community. Perhaps yellow is now the colour of arrogance?
The government has also fudged the extent and the costs of both the buyback proposal and the upgrade of the electricity system. Brumby said putting all powerlines underground could cost as much as $20 billion. He did not reveal the source or detailed costings associated with that figure. He did not say what it would cost to implement the alternatives suggested by the commission, which include the aerial bundling of wires. And he did not acknowledge that the rural power system is coming to the end of its engineering life and needs replacing soon anyway. This means what we should really be examining is the difference in cost between replacing the system in its current form, or upgrading to safer technology.
Electricity failures sparked five of the big Black Saturday fires, including the Kilmore East blaze that killed 119 people. Any decision about replacing the system must take into account such loss of lives, homes and businesses. The commission conservatively estimated the physical cost of the disaster that day at $4.4 billion; the human cost is incalculable.
Residents at the consultations were divided over what should happen with powerlines. The consultation report also concluded that there was “little or no support” for the housing buyback. Some residents wrongly assumed the buyback would be compulsory. Others were concerned about its cost and how it would affect those choosing to stay. (Neither residents nor the Premier seemed to touch on the moral dilemma in this: why should the safety and happiness of those who want to leave be sacrificed to their neighbours who want to stay?)
The commission was too vague on the buyback, a vacuum the government has exploited. The commission said land in areas “close to bush and posing an unacceptably high threat to human safety” should be bought so that people can afford to move elsewhere without passing the risk on to someone else.
Commissioner Susan Pascoe later clarified that it was not meant to encompass whole towns but to apply to “micro-zones” in which people lived on heavily forested spurs, for example. Bushfire expert Dr Kevin Tolhurst thinks “we’re talking about tens or hundreds of properties, not thousands of properties”. He said the buyback could be spread over a long period, perhaps 30 years.
The government has taken this modest and sensible proposal and blown it up into a gargantuan threat. Planning Minister and bogeyman Justin Madden said buyback would depopulate some country areas and that it would cost more than
$20 billion to buy the 54,000 homes in the 52 most at-risk towns in Victoria. That is never what the commission intended. The government is playing a cynical and manipulative game.
As for Brumby’s argument that no residents came up with an objective way the zones could be nominated — bosh. Since when did any government rely on residents for the expert crafting of policy details? Implying that assessment was too difficult made Victoria sound like some hick backwater rather than a first-world state that runs sophisticated systems across complex areas such as education, health and the law.
Get a bunch of bushfire and planning experts, assign them the task, and follow their recommendations. How hard is that?
Oh, but hang on — isn’t that what we were supposed to have done with the bushfire commission?

Raw emotion brings down curtain on bushfire saga

BERNIE Teague faced the media yesterday in the jaunty bow-tie that is his trademark. It didn’t quite go with the tears in his eyes.
In an emotional final press conference after their mammoth report on the Black Saturday fires, all three royal commissioners had suspiciously bright eyes and voices that occasionally caught on a jagged emotion. Many people touched by the bushfires found it was only when they paused from frantic activity that the reaction began to hit them. So too, it seems, with the commissioners.
They were asked if they would find it hard to let go of such an intense experience. Would they still pursue bushfire work in some other way?
Mr Teague, the inquiry’s chairman, smiled and said he was exhausted, but “I will, if Daylesford CFA will take me, volunteer to be part of Daylesford CFA, and I’ll take an interest in matters where people are minded to think I can help out”. Mr Teague has a weekender at Daylesford.
Commissioner Susan Pascoe would like to be involved in education, which is her professional background, so that “we keep in the foreground of people’s thinking both the loss of so many community members but also what might be done to prevent it happening on that scale again”.
They said many aspects of the work had moved them, including the pain of people in community consultations soon after the fires and the harrowing stories told by lay witnesses during the hearings.
Mr Teague, a former judge of the Supreme Court, said: “When you look at some of the photographs the police had to take, they were incredibly heart-wrenching. It goes back to my days as a judge when I would sit in my chambers and shut the doors when I wanted to read the victim impact statements because they were the things that hit me the most. When you come to photographs of small children, whatever the context, who died an unnatural death, it’s very disturbing.”
His voice trembled as he said: “You couldn’t help but feel that your heart had taken over from your mind.”
But Ms Pascoe said there was also much that was uplifting: “We have had the extraordinary privilege of listening to the raw experiences of people who have been through one of the most horrific experiences that life can dish up. By and large, those people responded with extraordinary courage . . . there are countless stories of putting the community ahead of themselves. [It has] certainly confirmed [a] deep vein of goodness.”
Commissioner Ron McLeod defended the inquiry’s controversial recommendation that the state replace its ageing power distribution network to prevent fires caused by electrical faults. The proposal would cost billions.
He said the commissioners were not ignorant of the money pressures on government “but essentially we were driven by a desire to make Victoria a safer place to live in . . . These man-made structures will not last forever and in our judgment, they continue to produce a very high threat in days of high fire danger.”
Ms Pascoe elaborated on the other controversial recommendation, for a government buyback of houses in extreme fire-risk areas. She agreed the inquiry had intended this to apply to “micro-sites” rather than whole towns: “They would be sites that are on ridgelines, often surrounded by gullies . . . particularly if they are within 100 metres of bush.”
She said the commission left it to the government to designate which areas should be targeted through township protection planning because, while certain known sites had been hit hard on Black Saturday, other places might also be at great risk on days with different conditions.
Asked whether they would stay to defend a house, given what they now know, Mr McLeod said: “How many people want to wager on their life? Because that’s what it really is, if one accepts that there’s a certain randomness in the way a bushfire can move over the landscape. In my view, it’s a fairly forlorn wager to hope that randomness will save you in a fire.”
But Mr Teague thought differently: “You’ve got to allow for the age factor, apart from any others, but I think perhaps if I had a swimming pool and wet blanket alongside, I might stay longer.”
Daylesford CFA captain Don Anderson allows for the age factor. Told yesterday that Mr Teague would put up his hand, he said: “Really? How old is he? We’re really looking for young blokes. I’ll have to have a talk with him, mate, but that’ll be fine, no worries.”

CFA advice on defendability ‘inadequate’ Reluctance to advise home owners

THE CFA was still reluctant to give home owners advice on the defendability of their homes, and its advice was inadequate, the final report of the Bushfires Royal Commission said.
It recommended people be warned that current building standards were designed only to provide protection from bushfire for 15-20 minutes, but many Black Saturday survivors had faced firefronts that lasted over an hour. “The standards also assume a home will be actively defended,” the report said.
It warned that the CFA’s advice focused on the immediate surrounds of a house but many of those who died were in areas of heavy forest or on the crests of hills “and in similar positions the commission considers would have been undefendable on 7 February, even if the properties themselves were relatively clear and well maintained”.
“These broader factors affect the ferocity of the approaching fire and whether the house could be subject to very heavy ember attack. Assessments of defendability should therefore consider the nature of the nearby undergrowth and fuel load.”
It said studies had suggested houses needed to be 100-140 metres from bushland but urgent research was needed to determine the best minimum setback.
It criticised the low number of individual site visits made to assess defendability, which it said possibly reflected “the CFA’s reluctance to date to provide such advice”.
After Black Saturday, the CFA Act was changed to give the agency protection against legal liability for offering such advice. But the commissioners said it might be necessary for the act to be amended again to make overseeing defendability advice one of the chief officer’s core responsibilities.
The government should evaluate the situation in two years and if there was no improvement, the issue should be mandated for the chief officer, the report said.
It also warned that CFA guidelines did not cover farm, commercial and industrial premises, which required separate expert advice.
A spokesman for the CFA yesterday said site visits were just one way it helped prepare the community, and that people were welcome to phone regional fire service officers to discuss the defendability of their property.
The CFA advises about defendability in community education materials and offers an online questionnaire.
Following the commission’s interim report, it revised its advice to warn that defending could mean death and is not an option for children, the elderly or others with vulnerabilities; that not all houses are defendable, and many more will be undefendable in extreme conditions; and that preparation must involve pumps, hoses and fittings designed for extreme conditions.

Expert slams report: ‘Don’t try to fight fires that can’t be fought’

THE Bushfires Royal Commission final report was timid and failed to sheet home responsibility to government and bureaucrats for deadly policy failures, a bushfire expert said yesterday.
“Stay-or-go was the cause of mass deaths on Black Saturday because people . . . were encouraged to stay and fight and they did so and they died,” said Frank Campbell, a farmer and former Australian editor of International Wildfire magazine.
“The royal commission’s timidity and lack of clarity ensure that the culpable authorities, including the government, can fudge their response.
“The root causes of the disaster are not considered. That is, essentially, that a firestorm cannot be fought, so the policy that encouraged people to fight the firestorm was totally wrong. In fact, it’s absurd, because the fire authorities themselves changed their policies more than 10 years ago,” he said.
“They no longer fight severe bushfires head on; they merely contain them. But they expect householders to do something which they can’t do.”
He said he was disappointed that the commission had found the stay-or-go policy to be basically sound, given that “in the last 16 months the commission produced an absolute avalanche of evidence, which was incontrovertible, that the policy was certainly not sound”.
He said the report also failed to differentiate strongly enough between normal bushfires and firestorms: “There’s only one solution when a firestorm is on its way and that’s evacuation.”
But firestorms were not freakish rarities: “It’s totally wrong for Bob Cameron, the Emergency Services Minister, to say, as others have said repeatedly, that this was an unprecedented event. Every 20 years or so, [fires of such intensity] are going to happen. It has every 20 years or so since 1851.”
He called for a permanent independent body to monitor the state’s bushfire response, and for Neighbourhood Watch-type programs on high-risk days to look out for suspicious characters who might be arsonists.
In other responses to the report yesterday, bushfire expert David Packham praised the commission’s target for planned burning of an average of 5 per cent of public land each year, saying this would ease almost all the other questions associated with bushfires, including evacuations and buybacks.
Mr Packham is an adjunct senior research fellow in the school of geography and environmental science at Monash University. He said in 1961, Western Australia found itself in a similar situation to Victoria today, with disastrous fires that led to a royal commission that recommended planned burning. “It solved the problem. WA no longer has a bushfire threat that is likely to kill . . . and the forests are healthy.”
He said if Victoria did not get its fuels under control, it could suffer a worse catastrophe than Black Saturday.

Softly, softly approach

THERE is nothing in the final report of the Bushfires Royal Commission to make John Brumby blanch, other than the astronomical size of the bill if the proposals are to become reality.
The inquiry did not eviscerate any of the emergency leaders who presided over Australia’s worst bushfire catastrophe. Former police chief Christine Nixon was found not to have lied. The pastings of fire agency chiefs Russell Rees (CFA) and Ewan Waller (DSE) about their lack of oversight of warnings and staffing were, if anything, softer this time than they had been in the interim report.
The government itself was not hung out to dry over the gaping holes in its stay or go policy. This was despite the fact that there was more than enough evidence to have justified a shot over its bows; researchers had been warning for more than 20 years that there were many circumstances — such as extreme days, or areas surrounded by dense forest — under which it was not safe for people to try to defend their homes. None of those caveats were included in the bushfire advice given to residents, and none of the witnesses from fire agencies or government departments explained why.
But the commissioners apparently decided that softly, softly would be more likely to catchee monkey — with the monkey being political acceptance of serious change on many fronts.
There is no doubt that commission chairman Bernard Teague kept his process at arm’s length from the government whose policies and agencies it was set up to scrutinise. He is a former Supreme Court justice, a species most properly prickly about its independence. In the third volume of the final report, he is at pains to emphasise this distance when he describes how the relationship between government and the inquiry was managed.
But there is a second reason why there is no need to speculate about views that might have been exchanged behind closed doors: those views were exchanged in full view of the public.
In the closing days of the commission’s hearings, a senior barrister for the government told the inquiry that harsh findings that named and blamed individuals would taint the commission’s work and make it less likely that its recommendations would be accepted.
Allan Myers, QC, said that findings about individuals created an air of controversy, and “sound recommendations which are tainted by controversy are less likely to be accepted by the community and by those who have to implement them”.
He said there was something “extraordinarily primitive” about picking out individuals and blaming them for the catastrophe: “It may be an instinctive human reaction, but it’s not one that finds any place in a royal commission, the function of which is to assist with the development of policies and organisational structures to deal with the problems of bushfires in this community.”
It may be that this won the commissioners over. After all, his point about the commissioners’ primary task was a fair one; the blaming of individuals, while it might provide comfort to those angered by their failings, would serve no practical purpose.
But it is also possible that they received a clear message from these comments, delivered on behalf of the government by the eloquent Mr Myers: “In the end, much good work and a great deal of hard work by counsel assisting will be compromised if their invitation to make these findings [about individuals] is accepted by the commission . . . it will adversely affect the acceptance of recommendations, however good and sound . . . it would not be wise to go down the path.”
Whatever the reason, the commissioners have not gone down that path. They have, however, provided the Premier with other headaches in the form of proposals for a buyback scheme, to encourage people in very high-risk bushfire areas to move and settle elsewhere, and the recommendation for wholesale replacement of the state’s ageing electrical system, which sparked five of the nine major fires that day.
The cost of the buyback scheme is unknowable and will depend on which areas would be targeted. But no specific areas are named, so it is unlikely to mean the emptying of whole country towns. Such a scheme would be manageable if it focused on “micro-zoning” of small, enormously high-risk areas.
In Kinglake, for example, there are roads along the top of mountain ridges that run into dense forest, and we know that fires run faster uphill and blaze more fiercely where there is dense fuel. Some gullies in mountain ash forests acted as funnels for fire on Black Saturday. These are places where human settlement should probably never have been allowed. Targeting houses in such areas would not be cheap, but if the program were focused, the costs could be contained.
This premier and his successors will have much more trouble wrestling with the fallout of electricity reform. Power company SPAusnet had estimated this could cost $7.5 billion in its distribution area alone, with power bills rising 20 per cent a year for 20 years to pay for it.
Add this to the tens of millions already spent on emergency systems, and the millions yet to come if refuges are built, as well as the increased cost to householders of building to bushfire-attack standards, and it is clear the post-fire landscape will be an expensive one for all Victorians.
But at the centre of this big picture stands one quiet but crucial recommendation: that the government appoint an independent monitor to assess implementation of recommendations and report to the Parliament and the people of Victoria by July 31, 2012.
We have had endless bushfire inquiries. Most of their findings were shelved. That must not happen this time, and the appointment of the monitor will be Mr Brumby’s way of telling us he agrees.

Lest we forget the victims

The Bushfires Royal Commission will tell us what must be done to avert similar tragedies. Those findings, and the urgent need to act on them, are underscored by the stories of the 173 people who died on that dark day.
OVER the next few weeks, there will be strong debate about what we should learn from Black Saturday. Media headlines will be about what we do next — and how to pay for it. For those who have been touched by the work of the Bushfires Royal Commission, however, it is not the policy debate that will haunt. It is what has been learned about the last moments of the 173 people who died.
There was the 16-year-old boy, fleeing flames across a paddock, running with his father and mother and two younger brothers. They came to a barbed wire fence. The boy and his father scrambled over it. The others, struggling to breathe despite thick smoke and searing heat, could not.
The son told police, “We got down low so we could breathe but I realised that mum [and my brothers] were still on the other side of the fence . . . I pushed it down and I was looking around to see if I could find ’em. I was moving my arms to see if I could touch them to drag ’em over. I couldn’t find ’em but all I could hear was them screaming, and in the background I could hear my dad calling me back, saying to get out of there ’cause he would have lost me too, and he was calling me and calling me and . . . it was just getting too hot. My shoes were melting, I burned my legs and my elbows. I had to get out. I jumped over the gate again and I got to the road. All I could hear was them screaming and calling our names, saying they were burning. Dad tried to go back himself but I held him back. I said, ‘You couldn’t go in there’. Otherwise he would die. It was too hot.”
At the heart and soul of the work of this commission is the horrifying loss of 173 people, and the suffering it has meant for those left behind. During 83 hearings into deaths from fires, the royal commissioners heard many other anguished stories of families separated in fires, of whole families in which parents and young children died together, and of the last-ditch phone calls that many of those about to die made to their loved ones to say goodbye.
The commission needed to get a picture of each individual death, and a sense of what the fire plan had been in each case, in order to assess how well the state’s “stay or go” policy had worked. But it also wanted to minimise distress for the bereaved, many still deeply traumatised. More than 450 family members, friends and workmates came to the hearings.
The deaths’ inquiries were held in a small annexe, rather than the main hearing room, and they were not webcast, which made them more private. Photographs shown during the hearings were digitally altered to remove images that would have upset loved ones, and the evidence was given in hearsay summaries of witness statements. Families had the chance to ask questions or make comments at the end of each hearing, and psychologists were available to help anyone who needed it.
All the evidence was given by Detective Superintendent Paul Hollowood, head of Operation Phoenix, the police taskforce investigating the fire deaths. He told the inquiry more than 450 investigators worked on Phoenix: “At one stage there half our investigative effort for all of Victoria was actually dedicated to these fires.”
It is clear that many people died because they wanted to save their homes. Hollowood told of an 83-year-old Marysville man who refused his family’s pleas to evacuate the home he had built with his own hands, saying: “I’m going down with the ship.” The man’s son told police that his father had restricted mobility because he had fallen and hurt his back a few days before Black Saturday, but “the house was more than a house, not only to my father but to our family. Many family Christmases and other special events were held at the house and it was like a base for us all. It was because . . . [it] was like sacred ground to my family that my father chose to stay and defend the property.”
A Hazeldene man, 87, also refused to evacuate because he did not want to abandon his home. His wife would not leave him. Their son would not leave his parents, and the son’s wife would not leave her husband, even though it had always been her plan to get out if fire threatened. They all stayed, and they all perished.
But, while some ignored warnings, more died because they failed to receive any, or because their homes were never going to be defendable on a day of such extreme conditions. The commission heard that the four members of the Davey family of Kinglake lived on a heavily forested ridge and that a narrow gully effectively directed fire to their home. It also heard that Michael Flynn, who died of his burns after being transported to help in the back of a Kinglake West CFA truck, had always planned to evacuate in case of fire and might have survived had an urgent warning requested by the Whittlesea CFA captain at 3.58pm been uploaded on the CFA website.
Black Saturday overturned the conventional wisdom on bushfire safety. In the past, people inside houses mostly survived, and around a third of those who died were people who were on the road because they had fled too late. On Black Saturday, only 14 per cent of those who died were fleeing, either in cars or on foot. But a remarkable 69 per cent (113) died trying to shelter inside houses, sheds or bunkers.
John Handmer is head of RMIT University’s Centre for Risk and Community Safety. He and two other academics were asked by the commission to report on the deaths and what they implied for the stay or go policy. Mobile phone and computer records mean that there is an unprecedented amount of information available about the intentions and final actions of those who died that day. Handmer concluded that the stay or go policy might be sound on paper but that it presented “major challenges, particularly for very fast-moving and intense bushfires”. He found:
■Most of those who died were unaware of fire risk generally, and what the extreme conditions that day meant.
■Only half had a fire plan, many of those were of poor quality, and even the good plans had weak links.
■Forty-four per cent of those who died were vulnerable because of age, youth or disability.
■Disagreements between men and women over whether to evacuate (women wanted to go, men wanted to say) led to last-minute changes in plans or failure to commit to action in time.
■For 32 per cent, the defensibility of the property was questionable, and severe wind damage to roofs or windows emerged as a new factor that opened houses to fire attack.
■Thirty per cent were taken by surprise, and fewer than 10 per cent received an official warning.
■Many who fled in cars survived, and it was possible that modern cars provided better protection than in the past.
Handmer concluded the evidence supported the stay or go idea that it was dangerous to shelter “passively” — but he also found that “most people who became fatalities did not, and could not, respond appropriately to the risk that the bushfires presented for them on 7 February 2009 . . . This highlights the key role of clear advice tailored to people’s circumstances, timely and specific information and warnings, and of safe accessible places for people . . . to relocate to. It also suggests implications for policy-makers in the fields of land-use planning, development control and the management of bushfire fuels.”
Many bereaved relatives who attended the hearings expressed hope that the commission would lead to change.
One of them was Jill Scherman. Her son, Greg Lloyd, 22, was holidaying with two friends at a relative’s house in Steels Creek on Black Saturday. He was in phone contact with family that afternoon and reported that the house was full of smoke. By 6.18pm, he had given up all hope. He rang his mother on his mobile to say goodbye: “We are in the bathroom together, Mum. I love you very much and I am dying. I want you to know we are OK together.” His mother later said: “He was quiet, calm and peaceful. There was a click on the phone and then we lost contact.” All three died.
His mother told the commission: “In the usual course of life, you cannot gain experience without paying a price. But in the experience of the many bushfire-affected families of this state and those in charge of systems, agencies etc, the price has been immeasurable, and not learning from this experience would be even more costly, adding to the agony . . . To those in government responsible for ensuring that systems recommended by this royal commission are put in place, please listen and don’t allow further tragedy.”

First published in The Age.
The final report will be available online this afternoon at www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au. Free copies can be ordered from Information Victoria on 1800 463 684.

Plea for a revolution


BEFORE Black Saturday, Leigh and Charmian Ahern would have made a poster couple for Victoria’s bushfire policy, “stay or go”. They had always taken seriously the threat associated with life in a heavily forested area. They belonged to their local Fireguard group and had installed an elaborate fire-fighting system: two tanks with 20,000 litres of water each, a fire pump, a spray backpack for spot fires and roof sprinkler systems. Water pipes were buried to protect them from heat. Leigh Ahern kept the place clear of leaves and debris and regularly tested the fire system.
Their fire plan was based on the “stay and defend” option. This part of the state’s policy said able-bodied people actively defending a well-prepared house had a very good chance against fire; houses protect people, and people protect houses, was the mantra. Even an ill-prepared home would probably shelter people against radiant heat while a fire front passed over.
But the Aherns became two of the 173 people whose ghosts haunt Victoria’s policy-makers.
Fire ignited in the roof space of their Steels Creek home after wind lifted the roofing sheets, making all their preparation useless, arson chemist Karen Ireland told the Bushfires Royal Commission. “Once the roof sheets became detached, the sprinkler system would have been rendered ineffective . . . The occupants would have struggled to extinguish multiple fires within the home . . . and they would have been exposed to extreme temperature, wind and smoke.”
Roofs ripped off by fierce bushfire winds led to the deaths of many that day. It was one of several deadly possibilities not mentioned in bushfire advice offered to country people. And it is one of the Black Saturday problems the state government seems reluctant to acknowledge.
The government appears to be positioning itself to muffle or reject parts of the final report of the Bushfires Royal Commission, to be released next Saturday.
This week, Premier John Brumby initially announced he would not even respond to the commission’s findings until the government had spent weeks consulting with the public, agencies and business groups “to ensure that the concerns of the community are properly addressed” — even though that is precisely what the commission has just spent $40 million and 14 months doing.
It was only following pressure from Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu that the Premier agreed to hold a parliamentary debate the week after the report is released.
The government effectively put itself on trial when it set up the royal commission last year. Like any accused, it seems to fear the verdict. It is an election year, and the final report can only mean trouble — even though the explosive energy around failures in emergency leadership has now been effectively neutered.
CFA chief Russell Rees, who presided over a chaotic system that failed to warn thousands in the path of the most deadly fire, resigned this year (although it is believed the decision that he would go was made last year). Former chief police commissioner Christine Nixon found herself in the village stocks for having gone out to dinner on Black Saturday despite knowing a disaster was unfolding, and for fudging her evidence on that point to the commission. Now she, too, is gone, having fallen on her sword as head of the recovery effort last week. While neither admitted quitting over Black Saturday, their absence from the public arena is a blessing for the government.
But there are other big problems for which there is no easy “exit, stage right”. The first is the government’s responsibility for the failures of its stay or go policy (more formally known as the Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early policy). The second is its declared reluctance to pursue some of the likely recommendations.
The inquiry heard that, for more than 20 years, experts had warned that the stay or go policy had problems, but successive governments and their mandarins failed to act. They included:
■1984 Ash Wednesday researchers found that fires starting in roofs were dangerous to occupants, who were unlikely to survive if houses were destroyed quickly. They also warned that people in houses surrounded by exceptionally high levels of fuel, such as those near mountains or ash gullies, might be wiser to evacuate.
■1992 CFA researchers studying the 32 civilian deaths on Ash Wednesday concluded that if people did not receive a warning in time, a good understanding of bushfire safety was irrelevant.
■1999 Researchers told the CFA the stay or go policy was asking people to make extremely complex decisions, and that most people ignored it: “Those who really conform to the two ideas of the Stay or Go Early options are in the minority . . . It is highly likely that there will be people who will ‘wait and see’ or ‘do as much as possible’ then leave.” This report told the CFA it had to develop new strategies for those people.
■2004 A report called for different survival strategies for extreme events that might make it hard to stay and defend; assessment of the effect inadequate warnings might have on the safety of those preparing to stay; and a definition of when it was not safe to stay.
■2008 A study of 552 bushfire deaths over 100 years largely backed the policy but said even those who planned to stay and defend were often not well prepared, had no back-up plan and did not expect the ferocity of fire or sudden wind changes.
Lisa Nichols, counsel assisting, said the caveats in these studies were ignored, and that bushfire advice to the public also wrongly presented staying and going as almost equal in terms of safety.
Stay or go solidified as policy from the mid-1990s, when there was a shift in the balance of responsibility over bushfire in Victoria. Much of the burden for human safety was lifted from emergency services and placed on people living in the bush. Authorities called this “shared responsibility”.
But the commission’s lawyers say this led to authorities ducking responsibility and abandoning other protective measures, such as refuges. Nichols said stay or go also meant “excluding assisted or directed evacuation, excluding giving specified advice about the defendability of homes and excluding the giving of concrete, directive warnings during fires”.
Instead, warnings were designed for those who had prepared to stay, telling them to activate their fire plan and offering little help to those who had no idea what to do. On Black Saturday, even that limited warning system collapsed: an incident controller who felt bound by protocol refused to issue warnings over the Kilmore fire; those managing other fires also failed to alert the public, and to alert firefighters to the dangers of a wind change; and those higher up the CFA and police hierarchies failed to notice that warnings were inadequate.
Despite stay or go telling people to make their own choices, research found the community continued to believe emergency services would help them during bushfire. Authorities persisted in believing that education would change people’s attitudes and behaviour.
It didn’t.
Counsel assisting said in a submission: “The evidence did not support . . . the offering of a one-size-fits-all choice between two apparently equal options for survival, the ruling out of back-up options and the effective removal of the role of fire agencies in giving advice and assistance during fires. Well before 7 February 2009, the risks, ambiguities and leaps of faith exposed in the analysis of a decade earlier ought to have been obvious to policy-makers . . . The community was, because of the stay or go policy, predisposed to suffering major losses.”
At hearings, the government vehemently denied that it had ignored warnings about the policy. It conceded Black Saturday showed up “weaknesses” but said no one could have foreseen them and that it should not be abandoned. Neil Clelland, SC, said it was the approach in all states and territories and was based on 100 years of “bitter experience” that people who sheltered in houses were likely to live, and people who fled late were more likely to die.
“Nowhere was it suggested, right up until the eve of 7 February, that the policy should be abandoned, or that it was flawed, or even that it exposed people to the risk of death,” he said.
But the intention to stay and defend played a significant part in deaths, disaster expert Professor John Handmer, of RMIT University, told the inquiry. He said this was an indictment of the policy and agreed it called on ordinary people to fight fires in situations where we would not put our most experienced firefighters.
Lawyer Clelland argued that Handmer found only 5 per cent of people who died were well prepared and carrying out an active defence at the time of their deaths, and this did not suggest the policy had failed.
But crisis expert Professor Herman Leonard, of Harvard University, told the commission: “The hope that people might do something is not itself a policy; it is what it is, a hope.” He said a policy should be judged on whether people complied with it. If they didn’t, “the policy is actually an invitation to a potential disaster”.
MOST of those who died were not like the Aherns; they had no intention of defending but did not receive enough help or warning to escape in time. An extraordinary 44 per cent were vulnerable because of youth, age, illness or disability.
The oldest was Karma Hastwell, 88, who used a walking frame, and the youngest was Alexis Davey, who was eight months old and just starting to crawl; both died sheltering with able adults in Kinglake. A Marysville woman was eight-and-a-half months pregnant; an elderly couple died at Narbethong with their son, who was in a wheelchair; and a disabled man with epilepsy, schizophrenia and palsy caught alight in his driveway in Bendigo. Foreign tourists with no understanding of wildfire died on a bush track near Marysville.
Many others who thought they were well prepared were caught out by a single weak link: a failed fuel pump, melted water pipes, or windows that exploded and exposed them to a blizzard of embers.
Stay or go failed to provide a contingency plan, a place to go when all else had failed, or even a specific warning to “Get out, now!” Police superintendent Rod Collins said police believed the policy left them unable to organise fire evacuations: residents were permitted to defend their properties, which meant “you effectively have a right to make a decision about staying and dying”.
Lawyers for the commission want a revolution. They want people warned that defending could mean death or injury. They want evacuations prioritised, with incident controllers made responsible for issuing specific advice — including routes, if possible. They want sites nominated as places where people can shelter during fire. They want local councils to keep a list of vulnerable residents who might need early warning, and they suggest police should help them leave.
And here is where the crevasse between the parties widens. Councils don’t want to be responsible for such lists and the state says it is not possible for police to be responsible for evacuating individuals, or for incident controllers to tell residents when or how to evacuate. The state denied it was dragging its feet over community shelters, even though Victoria still has only one formal fire refuge and 83 Neighbourhood Safer Places designated, compared with 600 in New South Wales.
Even late in the hearings, Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin was resisting the idea of a range of safety choices. He warned: “The difficulty with a suite of options . . . is that it might encourage individuals who would otherwise choose the less risky ‘leave early’ option to feel unrealistically more secure there are ‘other options’.”
To its credit, the government has implemented bushfire changes costing tens of millions of dollars. Emergency services have better warning systems, staffing, training and communications. There are new fire danger ratings, advice to householders on the defendability of their homes, improved bushfire resistance in school buildings and township protection programs for 52 high-risk areas. An enormous amount of thought, time and energy has gone into doing a lot, fast.
But the final report might call for even more dramatic and expensive measures. Counsel assisting, Melinda Richards, has argued for a buyback of high bushfire-risk land to allow residents to move to safer places in a “retreat and resettlement” strategy. Richards also said development of 50,000 small lots outside the urban growth boundary should be limited. They have no reticulated water, poor road access and many are too small to achieve defendable space, a combination one witness called “death-trap planning”.
The government opposes the buyback because it would be expensive and complex, said a lawyer for the state, Kerri Judd, SC. More public land might raise the bushfire risk for people left behind and communities would suffer from population loss, she warned.
Another proposal that would cost billions is a massive upgrade of the state’s ageing electricity system. Five of the biggest blazes on Black Saturday, including the Kilmore East fire that killed 119 people, were allegedly started by electrical lines or fittings.
Jonathan Beach, QC, for power company SP AusNet, said the proposals would cost up to $7.5 billion in its distribution area and could force up power bills 20 per cent every year for 20 years — not a prospect any government would relish.
It was bad luck for the Brumby government that Black Saturday happened on its watch. The stay or go policy seems to have been seeded initially under the Kennett government. If it were not for 12 years of drought and 11 consecutive days of searing heat, Black Saturday might not have become Australia’s worst bushfire catastrophe.
But it did, Victoria was not ready for it, and Labor was at the helm. Now it faces the ugly reality that serious improvement in public safety in the most fire-prone place on the planet requires vast sums of money over a long time — and even then, it will never guarantee safety for all.
The Aherns’ son, Dale, says: “My parents were prepared for bushfire. They were not prepared for what hit them that day. We just hope that future policies will reflect the new reality that no one had imagined prior.”
Next Saturday, we will learn the commissioners’ verdicts. The government’s verdicts on which proposals will be accepted are likely to dribble out over weeks or months. The voters’ verdicts will come when the Premier faces the polls.

Moral imperative in writing lessons from the firestorm

THIS week, leaks on the Bushfires Royal Commission led to broadsheet headlines about the government being lashed, with accusations that its stay-or-go policy had placed some of those who died at great risk. It was claimed that flaws in the policy had been known for 10 years but not fixed.
Within 24 hours, there was a leak to tabloid media that diverted the spotlight from policy and on to an individual, former police chief Christine Nixon, and the question of whether she lied to the inquiry. Counsel assisting the commission accuse her of deliberately trying to mislead when she initially failed to reveal she went out to dinner on Black Saturday (she strongly denies such intent).
Victoria has a rattled government facing an election, and a premier desperate to win a poll in his own right, just as the bushfires inquiry into 173 deaths on Black Saturday is reaching its peak.
The spectacle of hounds baying for prey makes for mesmerising theatre. And it is true that there are legitimate questions about the actions of many individuals before, during and after that dreadful day.
But any bloodletting should not distract from the big systemic flaws that underlay the Black Saturday disaster. These problems included a peculiar view in emergency services of what constituted leadership; the way funding for bushfire response has languished for years; and the government’s continued denial that stay or go was a catastrophe waiting to happen.
When it came to arguing about leadership, there was some evidence that backed the claims of Russell Rees that control of emergencies needed to stay at the local level, and Christine Nixon’s claims that good leadership involves trusting to delegation.
Herman Leonard, professor of public management at Harvard University, is also co-director of the Kennedy School of Leadership and Crisis Management. He told the inquiry that emergency management had to be decentralised because only people on the ground could understand what was happening and what was needed.
He also warned that blaming or praising emergency chiefs for how well or badly a disaster was managed was a mistake. People preferred simple explanations for complex events, he said. “The easiest one is that the leader . . . did a good or a not-so-good job, and we tend to over-attribute to him or her both the success when things go well and the failure when things go badly . . . The burdens [this places] on a single individual are completely unsustainable in a large, complex enterprise. He or she can’t even know much of what is going on.”
He also warned against viewing a disaster with “20/20 hindsight”. “It always feels inevitable that it was going to turn out this way, and it always seems like it should have been obvious to the participants as it was going along that it was going to turn out this way. Neither of those is true.”
Professor Leonard’s argument does not lift either Rees or Nixon off their respective hooks because they are being hung out to dry over other issues as well. With Nixon, it is over her inattention to the fires that evening, and her failure to ensure that when she left headquarters, someone was there to take her place. With Rees, it is because he failed to ensure the system was set up to prioritise warnings, and failed to have senior officers check both warnings and actual management of fires. Headquarters did not learn that day of the system’s collapse in terms of the Kilmore East fire that killed 119 people.
This might have been discovered had supervisors done more active checking of what was happening down the line, but the senior leadership was extraordinarily passive. They did not take it upon themselves to check warnings, to check on local incident controllers, or to study predictive maps about where fires were heading, the inquiry has heard.
Senior counsel assisting, Jack Rush, QC, said: “It’s as if the senior fire personnel were powerless behind glass.” Rachel Doyle, SC, another counsel assisting, was dismissive of the state’s defence that the chiefs were not “commanding” but “co-ordinating” the response. “The state argues that when the chief fire officers walked into the Integrated Emergency Co-ordination Centre they shed their command-and-control obligations at the door like so many coats on a rack, apparently.”
Those issues have been addressed by changes made last summer.
Inquiries and reports had pointed out for decades that the great need on days of fast-moving fires was better community warnings. Fire chiefs went into Black Saturday having heard that message many times. The ability of individuals in large systems to overlook the bleeding obvious seems to be a chronic human failing.
While the government has tried to deal with the failures of emergency command, it has been resistant on the question of the failure of stay or go. It’s a big ask, politically, to admit they had it so badly wrong.
Neil Clelland, SC, for the state, argued that research into the Black Saturday deaths had found only 5 per cent of those who died were well prepared for bushfire and were carrying out active defence at the time of their deaths. The state did not accept that the research into deaths showed that the policy failed, he said.
Is this an argument that the policy was good and would have worked well if only people had been smart enough to follow it? That the 95 per cent who died not actively defending had somehow brought their fates upon themselves?
Remember the fury of fires that day. People had been told it would probably be safe to shelter in their homes, but windows exploded inwards with the force of the gusts, and showers of burning embers sprayed right through houses; roofs lifted off. The state’s argument does not allow for the fact that the ferocity of the Black Saturday fires shattered the stay-or-go notion that people save houses, and houses save people.
And it conveniently ignores the fact that for at least 10 years before Black Saturday, studies had found many people were not following the policy. They didn’t prepare their homes, buy fire equipment, or plan to leave early. They wanted to wait and see.
Victoria’s bureaucrats, Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin among them, kept saying this was a matter for re-education. But Harvard’s Professor Herman disagreed. He told the commission: “The hope that people might do something is not itself a policy; it is what it is, a hope.” He said a policy should be judged on whether people complied with it. If they didn’t, “The policy is actually an invitation to a potential disaster.”
What those wait-and-see people needed was early warnings, help with evacuations, and local refuges in case they were caught out. But since the mid-1990s, successive Victorian governments abandoned those measures, creating a new civic contract in which the state looked after the fires, and its citizens chose how best to look after themselves. That must not happen again.
Finally, there is the question of openness. Esplin had led just one of the many inquiries over the decades that suggested various changes to bushfire response. Victoria has a pattern: a deadly fire followed by an inquiry, which is followed by recommendations that then languish as the urgency fades.
It is not as exciting as the pursuit of Rees or Nixon, but perhaps the most pressing need is for an independent auditor of bushfire response who reports directly to Parliament and who, like an ombudsman or the auditor-general, can sound a public alarm when problems arise.
Meanwhile, the commissioners are under pressure about naming and blaming. They probably will ignore the political games. They have seen and heard too much to do otherwise. They know the details of the ways 173 people died and have listened to many of the bereaved. They will carry part of that anguish with them forever.
And they must know that a moral imperative underlies the writing of their work of history. There is great power in naming the truth; in the telling of stories, the hearing of stories and their recording for posterity, as South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process showed. It relieves the pain of the living, offers a memorial to the dead and a reminder for future generations that this must never happen again.

First published in The Age.

Minister kept in dark, fire probe told

IT WAS “troubling” that emergency chiefs failed to tell Police and Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron that Victoria’s $212 million emergency paging system would run at less than a quarter of its capacity on a busy day, and that fixing it had been postponed several times, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
Counsel assisting the inquiry, Melinda Richard, said Victoria entered three fire seasons with agency chiefs knowing that the system would not cope with an extreme event, but “the minister was kept in the dark”.
She said the failure to fix the system “bespeaks a troubling degree of complacency within emergency services and the CFA in particular”. “The agencies . . . knew that the system wasn’t ready for a really big emergency.”
The Age revealed, and the inquiry later heard, that the pager system was overwhelmed on Black Saturday as it was locked down to low capacity because when it ran at higher speeds to carry more messages, it lost coverage.
Ms Richards said Mr Cameron testified that he was not briefed about the lockdown decision and his permission had not been sought for it, nor was he told about serial postponements of the software upgrade designed to fix it. “The minister’s understanding going into Black Saturday was that the agencies were happy with the pager system . . . What this tells us is that the minister was kept in the dark.”
She said that two days before the fires, “the minister sought assurances from the heads of the emergency services that they were ready for the Saturday to follow, and those assurances were given. At least in the case of the emergency alerting system, it was not ready.”
The system was introduced in 2006 and its weakness identified the same year. Extensive work has been done to fix it since Black Saturday, with $21.5 million allocated to it in last year’s budget. The system dispatches crews to fires and other incidents, carries wind change and other warnings, and carries administrative messages.
Kerri Judd, SC, for the state, said it had not been fixed earlier due to technical problems, including the need for final testing of a software upgrade. She argued that the state had taken care to protect the emergency-message level of the system, which delivered quickly on Black Saturday. “The state was taking action and no finding whatsoever should be made that the state was complacent about this,” she said.
Another counsel assisting, Peter Rozen, said that by June 2012 CFA fire vehicles should have a global positioning system or other vehicle location equipment for the sake of firefighter safety. He said this would help with incidents such as the crash into a ditch of a Warrandyte tanker in Kinglake on Black Saturday, which broke the spine of the crew leader.

First published in The Age.
He said repeated maydays from the Warrandyte crew were hampered by the fact that they were surrounded by smoke and flame and could not identify where they were — 200 metres from Kinglake fire station.