The Bushfires Royal Commission has junked CFA policy. “Stay and defend” is essentially out, selective evacuation, refuges and new warning systems are in. No surprise there. 5000 pages of Commission transcripts spelled it out. You have to admire the Commission’s lawyers. Knowing little of wildfire, they slashed through bureaucratic obfuscation and laid bare the CFA’s deadly policies.

With unfailing politeness, counsel gave fire “scientists” all the rope they needed to tie their research to those discredited policies. Just in time, the Commission deftly reversed the potentially fatal error of excluding victims from its hearings. Harrowing personal experience was quietly juxtaposed to the hubris of “experts”.

But journalists didn’t bother to read the evidence. Their abject failure to analyse the fires was exemplified by Virginia Trioli on the ABC’s Breakfast news (2nd July). She interviewed Kevin Tolhurst, apparently unaware he was one of the architects of CFA policy. Tolhurst repeated the bizarre rationalisations which have amazed the Commission: “the community was not adequately prepared… despite all the warnings”. What warnings? What preparation? He wasn’t asked.

The weird CFA notion that “people have to be fully empowered” was trotted out again. Tolhurst’s solution is to “make sure people are well-equipped” and “more self-reliant”. Shame they weren’t ready to fight the fires. It’s really their fault then. But if the CFA can’t defend houses in forest towns in firestorms, how can householders with mops? Neither Tolhurst nor Trioli grasped this elementary fact.

No wonder there’s been little media reaction to Premier Brumby’s description of the CFA leadership’s performance on Black Saturday as “outstanding”. The royal commissioners, barely visible under masses of damning evidence suggesting less than outstanding achievement by fire agencies, are probably on the floor of a locked motel room somewhere, surrounded by empty bottles.

Five months on, Black Saturday has at last got some attention from intellectuals. Well, one article. 7000 words in The Monthly, by Robert Manne. The fires narrowly missed his town, otherwise the piece may never have been written. We’ve had acres of colour journalism and a daily ration of Royal Commission served up sans comment, but precious little analysis. Less analysis in fact than the recent editorial boning at The Monthly.

Magazines such as The Spectator and The Monthly did briefly cover the fires. Cathartic reactions to shock. Sincere but shallow. Only Crikey showed sustained interest. Seven or eight writers weighed in.

Manne sticks to one crucial issue. “Why We Weren’t Warned” is a trenchant if prolix expose of the deplorable failure of the authorities to warn those in mortal danger on 7 February. Everything he relates is on the public record, either in the media or Commission transcripts. The fire agencies knew that once the Kilmore East fire crossed the Hume highway it could not be stopped. No need for predictive maps.

Just like all the other “unprecedented” Victorian firestorms, the fires raced south east, then north east with the wind change. The smoke plumes showed up as rain on the weather bureau’s online map all day. I watched them. Fingers of death pointed at their victims, hours in advance.

Black Saturday was not, as Manne and the media say, the worst peacetime disaster in Australian history. Over 400 died in 1899 when Cyclone Mahina struck north of Cooktown, wiping out the pearling fleet. About 100 aborigines drowned, some while rescuing sailors, when a fifteen metre tidal wave surged inland. If 400 white Sydneysiders had drowned in 1899, you can be sure that would be etched in the collective memory.

But Black Saturday would have been much worse if the fires had reached the Dandenongs. It’s only a matter of time before yet another “unprecedented” firestorm strikes our sprawling bushurbia.

The charitable view of Black Saturday is that confusion reigned in the fire agencies. Cumbersome bureaucracy and overload did cause chaos, but the sinister truth is that official policy caused many deaths. If you assume people are safest at home when wildfire strikes, you can understand why police ordered people evacuating “late” to return to Pine Ridge Road, Kinglake. The Hainsworth family’s evidence encapsulates the tragedy. The CFA had told them informally that their street was a death trap. On the day, there were no warnings.

They saw smoke nearby and decided to leave. They met a neighbour returning by car with her three children. She said “You can’t get out. You’ve got to go home.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “They’ve blocked the road. They’ve told me to turn around and go home. That’s the safest place to go.”

The Hainsworths left regardless. Their neighbours went to another house in the street. The owner begged them to leave with him. His house was already burning. They refused. He left and survived. The obedient family stayed, and died in the house.

Manne, like all the media, says CFA volunteers “fought the fires gallantly and selflessly”. They did not. They are not allowed to fight raging fire fronts. This policy is correct and only nine years old. Before that, volunteers were regularly burned to death in what I dubbed in the 1990s the Gallipoli Syndrome. Most people are unaware of the CFA’s true role. This contributed to the catastrophe.

The CFA is not the fire brigade. If they can’t knock out a bad fire in ten minutes, they revert to plan B, which is to contain wildfire within safe perimeters and suppress it on the less dangerous flanks. There’s no Plan C because the only thing which stops firestorms is the weather.

Why weren’t people warned? Manne asks why police road blocks were in place well before any fire threat was apparent to residents. The answer is that the CFA knew where the fire would go and advised their subordinates, the police, accordingly. He refers to a “peculiar ideological mindset” which inhibits the CFA issuing the necessary warnings. Ideological is perhaps not the right word. The rigid mindset derives from twenty-five years of policy evolution, backed by dubious “fire science”, on which the entire quasi-military structure of the CFA is based. CFA thinking is simple: if you haven’t left “early”, you must “activate your fire plan” and defend your house, predefined as a “safe refuge.” Leaving “late” is not an option.

Warnings just tell you to get ready, and being “ready” doesn’t help much in a firestorm. There was actually plenty of time for people to evacuate most places, but in Manne’s words “at every level the professional members of the CFA spoke and thought like bureaucrats”. Policy generated rules and rules had to be obeyed. “Conformity to rules was…the enemy of judgement, common sense and moral responsibility,” says Manne.

He’s dead right. On Black Saturday, the idiotic rules were enforced. No authority dared to encroach on another’s jurisdiction. Some individuals did break ranks. The resolute CFA captain in Gippsland who sounded a siren is well-known. It’s less well-known that he was censured for his temerity. The police in Marysville were braver. They ignored the fatal rules and led residents to safety as the firestorm hit. The media never followed up these clues which hint at dysfunctional bureaucracy.

The media took Katherine Haynes’ research on bushfire fatalities at face value for weeks. This study justified the “stay and defend” policy, but dates from 2008, long after the policy was implemented. Haynes says that not one “prepared” person out of the 552 “civilians” killed in wildfire in Australia since 1900 died while defending a defendable structure. They either fled too late, or died while unwisely defending outside or “passively sheltering”. Manne misses the point here. Haynes’ error is one of fundamental logic.

She assumes structures are refuges, therefore you stay inside until the fire front “passes”, then emerge to douse embers. But in severe wildfire, houses are fuel, not refuge. It is more logical to assume people flee because their house is burning or about to, and that people die fighting outside because the house is burning or about to, and that people die inside because they would be killed quicker if they came out. The 113 who died inside houses on Black Saturday would probably have died from radiant heat if they’d emerged.

CFA advice denies the basic physics of severe wildfire. Radiant heat can kill people at a range of over 100 metres and also ignite houses. Ember blizzard trumps mops. The evidence of Karen Ward is a case in point. The Wards were professionally prepared and their house was in a bare 17 acre paddock. At 500 metres the fire burned Ward’s skin. They left and survived. Their house burned in ten minutes.

The Commission says fire authorities “were not prepared for Black Saturday.” Wrong. The fire authorities were fully prepared. They executed a flawed policy badly.

Manne describes the ideological root of “stay and defend” as mutual obligation, a “neo-liberal cliche”. Citizens and government fight fire in a “post-modern” partnership, he says. Perhaps the explanation is simpler: the CFA no longer fight running fires head-on, but to admit this would undermine its very reason for existence, so responsibility is shifted to households. The CFA loves the term “empowerment”. People are “empowered” by taking “responsibility”. The “family” (not the school, factory or shop) cleans up leaves and buys mops.

The media (and Manne) ignored bureaucratic conduct after the fires, but the sham “empowerment of families” was starker than on Black Saturday itself. Unlike the humane common sense evident after Ash Wednesday, the state often behaved in a fascistic manner in the aftermath of Feb. 7th. Property rights were trampled, entry was banned for weeks, sites were bulldozed without consultation, journalists were harassed. What does this tell us about social democracy today?

It would be the height of absurdity for the government not to replace fire chiefs immediately, yet Premier Brumby announced on 2nd July that fire chiefs “couldn’t have done more” on Black Saturday. Hello? The system crumbled in the crisis because it was based on false assumptions. The fire agencies and their coterie of fire “scientists” are still wedded to these assumptions, as Tolhurst made clear today. One hopes the Commission comprehends the conceptual shambles, because the media doesn’t.

Brumby could only spray gloss on Black Saturday because the media conspicuously abdicated any critical role after Feb. 7th. Nobody excavated the toxic waste dump of disguised ideology and dubious research on which sits the whole jerry-built structure. All that newspaper hype about investigative journalism, professionalism vs online slovenliness, editorial chastity vs internet onanists, disciplined research vs opinionated rants, terse yet beautiful prose vs the dribbling garrulity of cyberspace. You could count the bushfire op-ed pieces in the last three months on the fingers of an ancient logger’s hand. If hometown mass death through state incompetence is too hard/dull for the media, then we may as well focus fulltime on troubled footballers.

If the fire bureaucrats stay, reform will be compromised. It’s not simply a matter of re-jigging warnings and refuges for the next firestorm. General fire policy and fire science have to be rigorously examined.

There’s the rub. Without continuous critical review of wildfire policy by an independent bushfire commission, intellectuals and the media, expect fire agencies and fire science to sink back into the dangerous obscurity from which they were dragged by Black Saturday and Justice Teague.