People are still dying because they are being told they can defend their houses. In these real bushfires they cannot — regardless of their “fire plans”. The shifting of responsibility for defending property and the decision as to whether to stay or go is an ideological position — one that is killing people.

Bugger the property, lives are at stake. Even now, today, people need to be evacuated in the parts of Victoria still under threat while what is left of the thinly spread screen of exhausted fire fighters saves what properties it can.

There should be now (and should have been) mass evacuations. The now-accepted ethos of individual choice to defend the house or go, individual responsibility to “have your fire plan” is killing people. A guy died holding his hose. He was simply doing what the radio and advice from the authorities told him to do — he made the “choice” — the wrong choice.

And there were way too few practical choices available from impractical people. An elderly couple died in their house when there was a dam within a few feet. Dams saved dozens in the Ash Wednesday fires — why weren’t people told to get into dams as a last resort? The systems of fire and community management we are now subjected to is not based on any examination of the experiences gathered so painfully on Ash Wednesday, 1983 — the systems in play now were developed by government departments and authorities.

In the Commonwealth inquiry into the 2003 fires (Victoria wouldn’t hold one), evidence was given from people whose house caught fire and they sheltered in the lee, the side that was not burning. It saved their lives. The house might have burned but they had shelter for a vital few minutes. These experiences have been ignored. None of this advice is being given yet. People are told to stay in their houses. The house catches fire and then what?

Victorian emergency services commissioner Bruce Esplin this morning defended this individual responsibility angle and came up with the idea of broad scale mobile phone communication for people. This is a sad joke. When the towers are burnt, when batteries are flat after no power for days this will not and cannot work. It is a desperate grab for technological tools that will make living in the bush and defending a home an individual responsibility. He — they — just do not get it. Other bureaucrats almost blamed people who died for making the decision whether to stay or go too late.

People need to be evacuated to safe places before they are under threat — and they need safe local places to go too. They do not need to be encouraged to “stay and defend their homes”. Of course people want to protect their property — but it is grossly irresponsible to encourage them to do in such extreme danger. Houses can be rebuilt — not so burnt bodies. Many people who have only lived in the bush for a few years and had no experience of fire — especially real hot wind driven bush fires that only occur a few times a century — may well want to stay, out of instinct and ignorance. In the past they had no choice. There was a knock on the door — “grab you stuff and go now” was the order from police or CFA.

If people during the Ash Wednesday fires were given the same “stay and defend” choice there would have been many more deaths. Almost everyone fled. If they had stayed to defend properties many more would have died. This crazy policy is the key difference between the past fires and this one.

Still — today — in the face of ongoing fires people are asked to decide whether to stay or go. Go where? This is impossible without safe fire safe place or a safe road — and which safe road with no communications and no time to communicate?

Each town there needs to have a fire shelter. Each town and district needs its own fire alarm with 12 volt power and a bell to set off really bloody loudly to tell people the time has come to get to shelter — shelters in each small town and for every few properties. In conditions like these everyone has to be taken out to safety.

There will be a blame game. Climate change will get a guernsey — though these extreme conditions last occurred in 1983, 26 years and the time before was 1977, only a 16 year interval. Fuel loads in the forest will be blamed too. Much of the shock and confusion generated by this fire comes from the number of fuel reduction fires lit over the last decade — the circus of keeping lightening strikes and other out of control burns going for “fire management purposes”. These fires were bad but not driven by these four times in a century conditions — they were nowhere near as hot.

Real bushfires are way more dangerous.

Peter Fray

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