Once considered a practical, even obvious approach to bushfire safety, the provision of designated Fire Refuges in at-risk communities has fallen out of favour. In fact, many municipal councils have adopted an active process of decommissioning existing refuges, be they specially designed buildings or public ovals. This marks a radical shift in the Victoria’s approach to bushfire safety, firmly placing the reins of responsibility in the hands of individuals.

A 2005 report by the Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner outlines the Victorian government’s current policy regarding Fire Refuges. It says: “The Government’s policy on fire refuges is very clearly an expression of the primary strategy for people exposed to bushfire, that is to ‘stay and defend or leave early’ on days of high fire danger.”

According to the Fire Refuges in Victoria, Policy and Practice report, the problem with refuges is that they can cause confusion as to what people should do in the case of bushfire. While recognising that they can provide protection from radiant heat, the greatest danger in extreme fires, it raises the concern that refuges “may encourage people to delay decisions about evacuation, and this may increase the likelihood of them being caught in the open or in a vehicle as a fire front passes.”

On top of the clear inconsistency between the provision of shelters and CFA recommendations to stay or go early, the report identifies several other concerns. Many shelters, built following Ash Wednesday in 1983, were not properly selected or maintained, were located too far from the population, were too small and exposed municipal councils to legal liability. In some cases people did not even know where they were, despite efforts to ensure appropriate signage.

This asks serious questions about the tenability of Fire Refuges at all.

The problems associated with Fire Shelters also place the State Government in a tricky position. The report says “it is not appropriate or even possible for the State Government to dictate that there be a standard approach which mandates that fire refuges should be provided in all areas based on a single factor such as bushfire hazard. To do so would tend to undermine the CFA’s recommended bushfire behaviour model and present another behaviour option as if it had the endorsement of the Government.”

The result, therefore, is that the provision of a fire refuge will be based on a decision of the municipal council, who must consult with the community. Fire Shelters are not compulsory. This policy decision is explained on the government website: “The purpose of the policy is to promote a safer and more consistent approach to the provision of fire refuges in Victoria. The policy itself neither encourages nor discourages provision of fire refuges in specific locations, and the standards and decision criteria make it quite difficult to justify and maintain a fire refuge.”

The report outlines the process that councils must go through when considering a fire shelter, and the strict performance criteria that must be maintained.

A very real concern, and one raised in the report, however, is that “…not all people in Victoria are actually following or planning to adhere to the CFA’s recommended household response to bushfires.” People continue to leave too late. The report says among this group, there is still an expectation that Local and State governments will take responsibility for their safety.

So the question becomes, has the policy of decommissioning Fire Refuges in favour of stay or go and individual responsibility proved effective? Unfortunately, the events of the last week would seem to indicate that it hasn’t.