By Angela Dorizas
The escalating death toll from the Victorian bushfires, currently standing at 173, has prompted Premier John Brumby to announce a Royal Commission into Australia’s deadliest natural disaster.
Mr Brumby said panic and the ferocity of the fires were largely to blame for the high death toll.
“We prepared, I guess, for a high tide, a king tide even but what ran over the state was more like a tsunami and people who had the best fire plans in place, who had been through bush fires before, had never seen anything like what occurred,” he told ABC television.
“I think the plans were right, the efforts were right, but what engulfed the state was more horrific than anybody could ever imagine.”
Mr Brumby said all factors will be on the table as part of the Royal Commission.
“Maybe the planning laws need to change. Some of the fire preparation needs to change,” he said.
“There is going to be a whole range of issues that come out of this Royal Commission and, I just repeat, I want everything on the table.”
Leave early or stay and defend
The policy of “leave early or stay and defend” which has been widely adopted across Australia to allow residents to decide for themselves whether to evacuate early or stay and defend their property will come under scrutiny.
“I think our policy has served us well in what I call normal conditions, but what we saw at the weekend were just not normal conditions," Mr Brumby said.
According to some experts, it is not the policy at fault, but its implementation by homeowners on the ground and their inability to stick to a fire plan.
Professor John Handmer from RMIT University’s Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) said late evacuation was the worst course of action.
“Our research has shown that fleeing at the last moment is the worst possible option; this is where most people have died or been injured,” he said.
“Sadly, this message does not seem to have been sufficiently heeded this weekend with truly awful consequences in Victoria. History and research both show that in past fires this has not been a safe option.”
He said threatened homeowners should decide in advance whether to stay or leave, then prepare themselves physically and mentally to follow through with their decision.
“The key thing to remember is that late evacuation is extremely dangerous. You are safer in your house than in your car or out in the open.”
Professor Handmer, who is currently evaluating the stay or go policy and its implementation across Australia, said it was too early to make an assessment of policy application in the Victorian disaster.
“At this stage, it is too early to judge the application of Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early policy, but it will be properly reviewed along with the normal review of all policies and practices after a major fire event,” he said.
Police defend policy
Victoria’s outgoing Chief Police Commissioner and head of the newly announced Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, Christine Nixon, has defended the state’s leave or stay policy.
“This policy is not just Victoria Police policy. It is actually a policy that has been supported by the Australian Fire Protection Agencies and it is that the decision about protecting your house, about giving people information, about the community meetings, all of those things are part of a process of giving people those decisions to be able to make but also warning them that if you stay, then you need to be prepared to deal with the consequences and to deal with the fire,” she told the ABC.
“There used to be policies where you could make people leave and it was mandatory for them to get out of communities but we are talking about adults and we are talking about people’s lives and so it is a policy that is well thought out and Victoria Police is supportive of it.”
Ms Nixon reminded the public to leave their homes early and not flee at last minute.
“What we are seeing, I think, is that people didn’t have enough time in some cases. People left and we are finding them on the side of roads in their cars.”
Bushfire info line: 1800 240 667
Victorian Bushfire Appeal: 1800 811 700 or www.redcross.org.au
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