Victoria’s Bushfires Royal Commission has politely damned the performance and policies of the state’s fire agencies. In doing so it has overlooked the inherent dangers of politeness.

Premier Brumby knew immediately after Black Saturday that the catastrophe could threaten his government. He chose to brazen it out, heaping fulsome praise on the fire chiefs and responding truculently to any hint of dissent.

The Commission underestimated the ruthlessness of politicians and the thickness of their hides. Universal criticism by the media for the administrative and policy failures on Black Saturday will not faze the Premier. Neither will smouldering public anger.

Brumby diluted the concept of responsibility to homeopathic proportions. His final formulation was audacious: “all Victorians feel a responsibility for … February 7th”.

Far from allowing the Commission to do its job unhindered, Brumby repeatedly pre-empted it. After banning separate legal representation for the various authorities, his most serious interference was the reappointment of CFA chief Russell Rees.

In spite of this white-anting, the Commission produced 360 pages of cogent analysis after a mere 35 days of hearings, and digested 1260 written submissions. A magnificent effort. But will key reforms be implemented? What, indeed, are the key reforms? The Interim Report recommends changes to virtually every aspect of wildfire policy. Sirens, websites, roadblocks, warnings, forecasting; it’s a plethora in search of a principle. Have the deep, twisted roots of fatal bushfire policy been cut?

Five myths have to be debunked to clear the way to genuine reform:

  1. Is that radical change can be implemented by those who have based their entire careers on the very assumptions which led to disaster. All the compromised chiefs must go. Rees, Esplin and Waller are architects and executors of failed policy and false beliefs.
  2. The impotence of the CFA in the face of severe wildfire must be revealed, not least to itself. The public believed that the CFA can stop firestorms. It can’t. It merely tries to contain them and waits for the weather to change. The Prime Minister’s excruciating bushfire memorial speech in which he said “Courage is a fire fighter standing before the gates of hell — unflinching, and unyielding and with eyes of steel, saying this: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other'” was horribly and inadvertently accurate. Infantile adulation of the CFA must cease.
  3. That “families” can defend property. If it’s too dangerous for the CFA to fight fire fronts, how can untrained, ill-equipped people do it? Allowing the CFA to assess the “defendability” of properties is a trap for both the CFA and residents. By all means assess and prepare property, but the rule for adults should be “go, or stay at your own risk”. Evacuate children. The phony ideology of citizen “empowerment” is finished. It’s a figleaf covering the CFA’s nakedness. In fact the entire CFA strategy has been based on “families”, ignoring schools, factories, shops or travellers. Regions and towns should be classified according to risk. The bad fire zones should be “no-stay” areas. Removing leaf litter and flammable vegetation close to houses and tightening building regulations is fine, but are not reasons to stay. In a firestorm, all that preparation may be as useless as a mop.
  4. That “people protect houses; houses protect people”. The worst advice possible. In severe wildfire, houses are fuel, not refuge.
  5. That a half-baked “relocation” policy will suffice. California copes with evacuations, so can we. So-called “neighbourhood safer places” is polly waffle, a recipe for mass death. A hierarchy of refuges is necessary, ranging from emergency bolt-holes to a truly safe refuge within every population centre. And these have to be defended by the CFA. Engineering solutions do not have to be cripplingly expensive, but even large open spaces will need radiant heat barriers.

Has the Royal Commission demolished these myths? Brumby kept the fire chiefs, and the commission was too polite to insist on new leadership. On CFA impotence, the Commission could be clearer, though it has unequivocally put life before property. On residents fighting fires, the Commission is more forthright, but recommending the CFA advise on “defendability” has left a loophole. The bad old policy could squeeze through. And who’s to say the unreconstructed CFA is a good judge of safety? In Anglesea in June, I listened in amazement as the CFA told elderly residents that the “stay or go” policy was “110% right”. Even in a severe fire, only the edge of town would be undefendable. “The rest is spot fires. You can handle them,” we were told.

The report does crush the “house as refuge” myth but this is vitiated by the ambiguity of “defendability” and the timid “relocation” policy. I don’t care if the vaunted “Wilson House Survivability Meter” (a crude rule of thumb masquerading as science) says your house has a 99% chance of survival, if it’s in Anglesea, leave early.

Quite rightly, the commission dealt first with urgent practicalities. The final report is due in July 2010. There’s time to rout the dark forces which shaped Victoria’s strange wildfire policy. There’s also time to expose the sixth great myth, the most seductive and dangerous one of all, that prescribed burning will make us all safe.

Peter Fray

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