Thursday, April 2, 2009

More Thoughts for the Royal Commission

As we explained in our last post, we are being dogged by questions and thoughts about the fires. There is no way we can prevent wildfire events. They are integral to this part of the world and will continue to occur, possibly more frequently and with even more ferocity.

In our submission to the Royal Commission we painted a picture of a potential scenario that could easily occur if the circumstances of Black Saturday were just a bit different. What if it had happened on a week day, and spot fires (or arsonists) had lit fires closer to outer suburban areas like Lilydale, Wonga Park or towns around the Dandenong Ranges. The fires in Canberra a few years ago set a terrible example. If the fire had taken hold in a suburban area it would have spread from house to house with dire consequences. Apart from the flames, residents would have to cope with massive amounts of dense smoke. The roads would be clogged with panicking people trying to get home, others trying to flee, parents collecting school children and all this happening during peak homeward bound traffic. Fires in industrial areas could add explosions and poisonous fumes to the mix. Power outages would cause traffic lights to fail, gas lines could ignite and water pressure would drop dramatically. Would people know what to do and where to go? Emergency services would be stretched to the limit.

Some people may think we are being over the top, but we believe this scenario needs to be carefully thought through. If we do not develop strategies in readiness for such extreme situations, the results would be too terrible to contemplate.

One strategy that would allow communities to be better prepared is for the government to declare extreme days (like 7th February) an “Emergency Situation Day” on the prior evening. Like an advanced level fire ban day, this would trigger certain behaviours in fire prone areas and suburbs. Schools would be closed, businesses would be asked to consider closing, companies would be asked to provide leave to employees who live or work in the affected areas or who are CFA members. All this would happen early in the day. Residents could follow a generic fire plan which lists steps and precautions they need to take and the location of the nearest safe haven.

An emergency declaration would enable people to arrange their day without panic. Those leaving could leave early. Those staying to defend could stay home and prepare. Volunteer fire fighting personnel could ready themselves. The fact that this would happen only occasionally and normal daily life is disrupted would be a clear signal, that that particular day is considered extremely dangerous. It would force people to at least seriously consider their situation and hopefully make some sensible decisions early in the day.

In our society we have lost touch with the environment and its warning signals- cocooned in our homes with air conditioning and electrical entertainment and connected to the world via a computer. We need to regain the ability to be aware of times when nature is setting up a disaster scenario and to take action to protect our loved ones and our communities before it occurs.

Some people have called for forced evacuations in times of extreme crisis. We object most strongly to this idea. There are a myriad of problems with this approach. Forcing people onto roads in a continually changing wildfire event is far too dangerous. Often the people organising the evacuation are not familiar with the local area. Lack of local knowledge can lead to dangerous advice.

In these highly emotionally charged disasters the last thing anyone needs is conflict, which is what would result if police tried to evacuate residents who were determined to stay. In the days after Black Saturday, Heather was told she could not pass a police roadblock on the Melba Hwy to return home. She was 5 km from home, had travelled out along our access road an hour earlier and knew it was safe. The police officer did not know the area and did not fully understand the intent of his orders which was to prevent people travelling up the highway. Our side road was perfectly safe at that stage. His obstinacy caused her much distress and she was at the point of driving through his roadblock. Fortunately he listened to reason in the end. By all means give warnings to people, but in a free society we must retain the right to make our own decisions.


Sue Ditchfield said...

Dear Andrew & Heather

Your responses are very logical and well thought through. I find a large number of people are responding emotionally and making outlandish statements not based on fact. I live in Hoddles Creek and am also part of a CFG group and we try to make plans for such a situation that you have faced. There is no way of us knowing if we are correct in our "stay" plan and whether our plans are sufficient or not. If we are wrong, it is a deadly decision. Thankyou for writing your thoughts. You have made some very valuable suggestions, I hope Serafina and the CFA community education section are reading this. Sue D (Hoddles Creek)

Andrew and Heather said...

Thanks for your comments Sue. Serafina has been out to our place a couple of times. In fact just a few weeks before Black Saturday the fireguard group came out to assess our place in terms of a CFA formula which determines the recommended distance between a house and the bulk of the forest taking into account forest type, topography etc. As it turned out, our property layout matched the recommendations almost exactly.

Sue Ditchfield said...

Dear Andrew and Heather

I think we all should work together here for the future. Fortunately for us, we have not had to "test" our fire plan. You mention "a CFA formula ... " Could you please forward me further information on this or a URL for me to gather further information??

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