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Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission « Previous | |Next »
August 2, 2010

The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission's final report has been released. Its final recommendations are here. It makes for interesting reading given that the fire agencies stated they were fully prepared for the extreme conditions of February 7, 2009 that resulted in a firestorm that caused 173 deaths.

Victorianbushfires.jpg

Unsurprisingly, the Commission found that there were system failures: problems in planning and serious deficiencies in top-level leadership that, combined with "divided responsibilities" and incompatible processes and even communication systems, hampered planning and response actions. In particular, the commission found "no single agency or individual was in charge".

That is what many suspected: no one was effectively in command as the fires roared out of control in the early evening of Black Saturday. So much for being fully prepared for a firestorm.

Surprisingly, it has found the "stay or go" policy is be basically sound, but qualifies this by saying that people should only stay and defend their houses if fires are less severe. It recommends building community refuges and bushfire shelters, burying aging powerlines underground and fuel reduction.

However, a firestorm---as distinct from a bushfire--- cannot be fought, and the fire authorities only act to contain them. Why isn't the stay or go policy scrapped for a firestorm given that there are some areas (heavy forest or on the crests of hills) that are just indefensible?

Will the report be a catalyst for far-reaching change?

The Report says that some places are too dangerous for people to live . . . and development should be strongly discouraged in these areas, and that the state government should adopt a "retreat and resettlement" approach in which the government offers to buy back people's property to encourage them to move to safer locations. This would create buffer zones.

The core political question is: will the Brumby Government be willing to embrace a policy that effectively admits parts of Victoria are unfit for human habitation, given that his government's Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority has as its motto "We Will Rebuild"? Brumby is considering his response to the Commissions' report and needs to talk and consult.

I suspect that the decision to allow bushfire victims in Victoria to rebuild in high fire risk zones will stand since the Brumby government's pledge is to rebuild every community "brick by brick". However, the costs of doing so in those parts of the destroyed areas that are too dangerous to re-inhabit and cannot be protected will be more than the property is worth. Paul Austin in Premier's moment of truth in The Age says:

For Brumby, leading a faltering and ageing government that faces a tight election in less than four months, the timing could hardly be more awkward....As he seeks to limit the political damage inflicted by these findings, Brumby is confronted with having to craft a response to culturally and financially difficult policy recommendations.His dilemma is acute: rejecting any of the recommendations should carry a political price; accepting some of them will impose a financial burden.

The commissioners note the lack of progress on implementing recommendations of their interim report, released a year ago, especially on Brumby Government has been slow in creating fire refuges for the 52 most at-risk towns in the state and enhancing the preparedness of incident control centres.

Update
The Age reports that the Brumby government will support in principle 59 of the 67 recommendations made by the royal commission into Black Saturday.Premier Brumby said those recommendations not on the interim list, including burying powerlines and residents selling high risk properties to the government, were still under consideration. These are neither ruled in or out.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:54 AM | | Comments (22)
Comments

Comments

No doubt there will be strong opposition to people being moved out of bushland areas and banning development in bushfire-prone areas.

The defence will be individual freedom and choice --"we will build where we want to live." For them there is no such as inappropriate development--in areas where the risk of bushfire is so high and the problems of bushfire mitigation so intractable that no development should be permitted by local councils and state governments.

There have been endless bushfire inquiries. Most of their findings were shelved.

You could argue that the state government's emergency services team were simply swamped, and all their careful preparations implemented to protect Victorians were overwhelmed by the firestorm.

If you live in a high risk zone you should take some responsibility for your own safety--eg., managing fuel reduction Why should the community pay for the individual choices to live in an high fire risk area?

As I understand it Victoria has had a spectacular history with bushfires, but that this one took the cake for sheer extremity of conditions.
Yes, it won't be pushed too hard, except when developers want to get in easy to clear, but in fifteen or twenty years another big day will come and we'll be back to where we are now.

"If you live in a high risk zone you should take some responsibility for your own safety--eg., managing fuel reduction..."

No doubt this would happen if it wasn't for those bloody tree-hugging greenies jumping up and down. Jeez, they've got no common sense. Crikey, they're trying to control, everything! I mean, a bloke has a right to do what he wants on his own land. The greenies have no clue about the bush.... etc... etc... etc...

Paul,
we will have to wait and see. The Brumby government has to do something--they have an election coming up.

Mars08,
there are restrictions on development and living on the floodplains of rivers or on the faultline of earthquakes. Why not high bushfires prone areas?

I appreciate that that this may not happen given the tree changers---and urban expansion. So who pays for the cost of the fuel reduction in these areas?

Some sort of tax or levy? On whom?

Oh... Sorry GST, I wasn't expecting to be taken seriously. I was just channelling some of the yobs I've heard ranting over the years...

What I think is, Brumby is lucky to face the polls after the federal election.
I understand Victoria is another state where the right of centre parties have not been able to make of themselves a credible alternative to even pedestrian Labor governments, Nan

I agree that we do need to heed the lessons of nature and not be so arrogant as to think we don't need to live with the land, just impose ourselves on it.
This I think means deciding as a community that some places should not be settled. I don't think we are talking whole towns but some small groups of houses or even single dwellings that have been built with little or no consideration for the possibility of bushfire. And I also don't think we are talking about turfing people out of the homes they have live in for 30 years. It is a matter of not allowing new buildings and slowly acquiring places when they are volunteered. We are much better able to defend ourselves and our communities, if towns/settlements are central and a whole area can be defended, possibly by a coordinated community response.

Kate
re your comment:

I don't think we are talking whole towns but some small groups of houses or even single dwellings that have been built with little or no consideration for the possibility of bushfire.

Agreed. But there are issues with those who want to rebuild in some of the "bush towns" such as Marysville, but they can no longer afford to because the insurance money does not cover the extra expense of rebuilding properly.

What happens to their land? Do they move on and try to sell it on the open market?

Kate
there is also the issue of the effects of clearing the land around the house as a form of defence from a bush fire ie.,... the 10/30m rule in Victoria that allows you to clear trees within 10 metres of their home, shrubs to 30 metres, and vegetation within four metres of a fence-line.

I can imagine that this clearing could result in vegetation being removed for purposes other than fire prevention and protection and lead to space devoid of vegetation and wildlife, the waterways suffering from soil erosion, due to tree removal.This is clearing for development.

There are two sides to this ---a sense of place and protection from bush fires. How do you preserve the former and prevent the clearing for development?

mars08,
the individual v government responsibility re bushfires is the crux of the matter. How do you balance both?

The "stay or go' policy is designed to address that. But it is premised on home owners getting the right information about the bushfire to make the decision to stay and fight the bushfire or to go.

The authorities did not provide that information because they were not prepared for a firestorm. So people died.

The second problem is that "stay or go" meant that no community refuges were built to help those who decided to go. For some reason 'go' meant that there was no reason to built shelters. So more people died.

The long-standing ''stay or go'' policy needs to be overhauled.

Commissioner Susan Pascoe has elaborated on the recommendation for a government buyback of houses in extreme fire-risk areas. She said the inquiry had intended this to apply to ''micro-sites'' rather than whole towns:

They would be sites that are on ridgelines, often surrounded by gullies … particularly if they are within 100 metres of bush.'

She added that the commission left it to the government to designate which areas should be targeted through township protection planning because, while certain known sites had been hit hard on Black Saturday, other places might also be at great risk on days with different conditions.

"Stay or Go" means that the safest place when the fire comes through is in the house. So where do you go when the house catches fire?

What is the next bit of advice in the 'stay or go policy'.

Immediately after Black Saturday, the then prime minister Kevin Rudd promised that ''we will rebuild these communities, brick by brick, school by school, hall by hall''. The former head of the Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority in Victoria stated that it was vital that communities ''rebuild in the ways they wanted''.

These messages are misguided as they are encouraging development in fire-prone environments. The right policy is for existing settlements to be removed from hazardous environments.

Nan, since when has reality ever impacted on Australian policy and politics, in recent times?
This is the "never let the truth get in the way of a good story" era.

The CFA had stated early in the fire season that they could not defend Gaffney's Creek and A1 Mine Settlement.

Can't blame the Victorian premier for the severity of the fires, although I heard he was shocked by their ferocity. The Premier was on the radio the Wednesday before the fires telling people that Saturday was expected to be a very bad fire day with an expected fire index of 450+, he urged people to evacuate early. I heard and stayed home.

In the past people travelled to their holiday houses to encourage the CFA to save the house. The CFA save inhabited dwellings first.

Friends who stayed to defend their house in the 2006 bushfires were so shocked by the 2009 fires that they decided to keep their house insured and evacuate at the next fire.

Obviously only can stay and fight a bushfire if there are 2 fit able bodied adults with no dependents. If you are frail, chronically ill or elderly you shouldn't live in the Victorian bush, or you shouldn't expect volunteers to risk their lives to defend your property.

The evacuation points are open ovals so you have to be fit to stay in the blazing sun for 14 hours on a 47 degree day and in some areas the roads are so congested you must evacuate the night before an expected bad fire risk day, so you might spend 2 to 4 days in the blazing sun.

Billie,
that comment sounds like an argument for good quality community shelters. Is it?

Gary I am saying a bit more than provide good quality community shelters. Councils are loathe to provide shelters for the local louts to vandalise and ferals to camp in.

We live in a society that expects the government to provide. Most of Victoria's fire protection is provided by the Country Fire Authority which is manned by volunteers. The CFA is the fire fighting force in the suburbs more than 2km from Melbourne's centre, the suburban stations have paid employees.

Tree changers expect to retire to their glass palace on a ridge line surrounded by gum trees with a well mulched garden. As they move mobility they should follow the rural folks example and move into town.

If people clear the bush around their house they no longer live in the bush and the loss of vegetation will lead to a reduction in rainfall.

Sad to say, you shouldn't have the freedom to live anywhere with the expectation that people will risk their lives to rescue you.

billie,
what i infer from your comment is that on a red alert day you evacuate your property--no ifs or buts.