Bushfire interim report queries refuge assertions

By Rob O’Brien
The position taken by local government on the provision of bushfire refuges was labelled ‘inconsistent’ with their emergency management obligations by the Royal Commission’s interim report into the Victorian Bushfires.
In its interim report, which widely panned the responses and planning for the Victorian bushfires, the Bushfire Royal Commission made 13 recommendations related to the provision of fire refuges.

In its critique of local government, the commission questioned statements that refuges in bushfire-prone areas of Victoria would encourage people to leave their homes late or worked against the ‘stay of go’ state policy, which the report found needed remodelling.

“The MAV and the CFA have commonly advanced the view that the mere provision of fire refuges encourages people to leave their homes late, thereby placing them at risk,” the report said.

“It is also often said, including in the 2005 Fire Refuges Policy, that the provision of fire refuges undermines or would be inconsistent with, the ‘stay or go’ policy.

“The Commission is not convinced about the validity of these assertions, or that they have been adequately tested. No empirical evidence was provided by witnesses to support these claims.”

Only nine fire refuges were available to people fleeing the deadly February 7 bushfires after most of them were decommissioned or abandoned by local government over safety concenrns.

In evidence to the Commission the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) accepted in that it was unlikely any money had actually been spent by councils on existing designated refuges.

MAV CEO Rob Spence had argued in front of the Commission that councils could be legally liable in providing refuge as the State Government had not granted them any immunity in providing the service.

Other testimony to the Commission stated that councils could not guarantee safety to people fleeing oncoming bushfires or fund the costs of maintenance for refuge buildings.

However the interim report found that local government was at odds with its role under the Emergency Management Act.
“The position adopted by councils about refuges may be inconsistent with their existing obligations on emergency management. In accordance with section 20 of the Emergency Management Act, councils are obliged to prepare and maintain Municipal Emergency Management Plans (MEMPs).

“In relevant regions, councils are also required to prepare Municipal Fire Prevention Plans under section 55A of the Country Fire Authority Act 1958.”

The interim report recommended that ‘municipal councils record the location of designated community fire refuges and neighbourhood safer places in their Municipal Fire Prevention Plans and MEMPs, and inform residents and visitors about their use and location’.

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