Bushfire survival should not be an individual responsibility. It should be a community concern. Maybe the death toll of this weekend’s Victorian fires will change things, but for now it seems that too often individuals were left in situations that proved fatally beyond them.

During the Mount Macedon fires people of the Macedon township and Mount Macedon took refuge together in brick hotels they could defend. Where were the refuges for people affected by these fires — the places they could get to quickly and defend collectively?

Since the Victorian fires of 2003 and 2007 — fires at Wilson’s Promontory, the Grampians and Gippsland that covered vast areas, terrified thousands but did not kill — the residents of the Victorians bush and regional communities have been coached to prepare fire plans and make early decisions as to whether they leave their homes or stay and defended them. They were spoken to as individuals, not communities. The preparations suggested were individual — house by house, not town by town.

It is too hard in a fire emergency to put the responsibility on individuals to make a choice to simply stay or go — there must be other options for safety. This policy has failed with fatal consequences — but despite this it must be objectively analysed — not attacked or defended with little point in castigating individuals or departments. A new approach is needed or perhaps old approaches need to be restored. We know that the emphasis on ‘individual responsibility’ in these extreme conditions has likely failed catastrophically.

Saturday’s scorching northerly and the inevitable southerly change meant that these fires would be deadly — again. But beyond the immediate tragedy there are lessons that can be learned to save lives in the future — changes made to the way Victoria and perhaps other places deal with these extreme fires.

In Victoria people have been killed by fires from the 1890s, in the late 1920s, in the 1939 fires. The Dandenong’s fires of the 1960’s and the Lara and Western District grass fires of the 70’s. Then there was 1983’s Ash Wednesday and now this — the worst fire in Victorian history.

When the smoke has cleared and the threat passed there must be a thorough evaluation of what went wrong — why so many people died this past weekend. Not another inquiry where employees of the Department of Sustainability and Environment and Parks Victoria are prevented from giving evidence. Not another inquiry where the opinions of individuals are left isolated by a lack of objective research and analysis. Certainly not an adversarial inquiry like those that followed the 2003, 2006-7 and Wilson’s Promontory fires that provided no protection for employees and volunteers on the ground to give objective evidence of what they experienced. This inquiry must not be about blaming people but learning about what to best do to protect peoples, their towns and homes.

There are valuable lessons to be learned, recorded and remembered. Little stories that might have a big impact. Save lives. In Yarram, threatened by fire unexpectedly on Saturday afternoon, a paddock of green canola appears to have deflected the fire from a sawmill and the town beyond. A hastily ploughed strip across a paddock also deflected the fire.

Older residents of Yarram reflected that in the past ploughed and burnt breaks were maintained around towns for every summer.

After Ash Wednesday homes were found to have been protected by cypress hedges that, though highly flammable, stopped the wind and deflected the fire in those critical minutes as the fire front passed.

There will be dozens if not hundreds of instances like this and they need to be recorded and published widely so everyone can avail themselves of this vital knowledge.

In the extreme weather conditions of Saturday all bush burned, even bush that had been subjected to fuel reduction burning or that was burnt out in the 2003 and the 2007 fires. Does fuel reduction burning work? Why are the old forests in Melbourne’s water supply catchments and elsewhere so resilient to fire, so hard to burn, when time and again we are told bush needs to be burnt continuously to reduce the risk of fire? Is this an accident of history or are there invaluable lessons in forests management yet to be learned?

There are thousands more people living in the bush in a myriad of small towns the names of which only become familiar in times like these. Whether surrounded by paddocks or forests these communities are extremely vulnerable in conditions such as those experienced last Saturday. It is likely that these communities need locally based fire plans and fire-safe refuges they can access quickly. They need local information flows independent of radio and TV. Even if these fires occur only once every two or three decades.

On Saturday afternoon the Mount Tassie radio and TV Communications tower in the Strezlecki’s was burnt and now — Monday — nothing has been patched together. Why not? The Dargo fires in East Gippsland are still burning at the time of writing. This has left a large area of Gippsland without any TV and FM radio communication as the AM Radio signal to the east is weak or non existent.

Bendigo residents had their local fire reporting on regional ABC interrupted by a State wide round up just as the fires were heading up the streets burning houses — lessons can be learned here too. How can communications be better secured in these extreme conditions? Only objective analysis will provide the answers.

Just prior to these fires the Bolara fires also saw fire fighting resources diverted to protecting a power station. Do these now privately owned facilities have their own fire fighting facilities? Will they now create them and maintain them though they may only be needed once every 25 years?

These fires raced through privately owned pine forests and vast native plantations. Were the companies that owned these forests adequately prepared? Where they were, what lessons could be learned?

Tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars has been spent burning State forests and National Parks since 2000 to reduce their fire risk. In these fires born of extreme heat and wind and it appears such management is worth little — but objective analysis of what burned and what didn’t, how fast and how hot may provide a different answer.

Community based protection of townships from these extreme fire events needs to include local fire safe refuges and fire protection alternatives beyond individuals making decisions as to whether they stay and fight fires or leave. Either decision last Saturday proved fatal for too many. When communities have ten minutes or less notice of a fire people need more options.

A Royal Commission will be needed and it will need to run over many months or more. It will have to be set up in such a way that it enables everyone, especially government employees, to be protected, speak their opinions and tell of their experiences. It then needs the capacity for comprehensive objective analysis that generates an accurate and comprehensive data base from which fresh management approaches can grow — free of political, bureaucratic and parochial point scoring. We need researched facts — not opinions and ideology. This has got nothing to do with global warming for now.

Such a Royal Commission does not need to condemn or charge anyone beyond the arsonists who lit some of these fires.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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