Monday, November 22, 2010

Problems of evacuation from bushfires

The contention that staying to defend one’s home from a bushfire is dangerous, ignores the fact that evacuation from a going bushfire has more intrinsic dangers. Historically, this approach has taken more lives than has home defence by thoroughly prepared and practiced householders.
Safe evacuation under Australian bushfire conditions has always been problematical. One of those problems being that abandoned houses have the highest incidence of destruction. Another is that every burning house sends off its own embers to ignite more houses, so escalating danger. (In the Canberra, 2003 fires, 30% of homes ignited this way.) Not only do abandoned houses have the highest incidence of destruction; every burning house sends off its own embers to ignite others.
On a day of heart-rending decision-making, evacuees persuade themselves that, ‘It doesn’t matter about the house’. But it matters to them afterwards. When they look at the tangled piles of rubble; when they rake through ashes for remnants of the meaning to their lives; when the days drag on and on in ‘temporary’ emergency housing.
The oppressive assertion that even well-prepared householders are likely to die, and that the only way to ensure safety is to abandon your home to its fate, will empty country towns. Though severe bushfire weather can be foretold, no-one can foretell where a bushfire will develop. This policy means that every country populace must be prophylactically disgorged. With none there to douse embers, with multiplying house-to-house ignitions, the emptied towns will be destroyed. Authorities have been unable to cope with post-Black Saturday housing reconstruction. How will they cope with even more?
This ‘everybody out’ proposal does not take into account the vastly different degree of risk to life during bushfire on days with weather like Black Saturday’s and those in milder circumstances when the threat may be to a single house rather than a whole town. Is the household always to pack up and flee? Though severe bushfire weather can be foretold, no-one can foretell where a bushfire will develop. How can a household gauge advance vulnerability from such fires, so as to be gone before one starts? Moreover, those encouraging evacuation seem blind to the fact that not only families will be involved: businesses, shops, hospitals, doctors, local officials and animal refuges … all packed up the night before, all travelling through the night or early in the morning to –where? Not everyone has family or friends in a non-vulnerable town (if such a place can be known). Where are these displaced persons to stay, should the fire danger protract for days?
People are asking ‘Where will we go’? And well they may. Neighbourhood Safer Places, officially, ‘cannot be relied upon as safe’. They are not for all-day use and do not cater for evacuees’ animals. Most would not provide shelter from the weather or flying embers. The idea of ‘encouraged evacuation’ is flawed as a safety measure.
The great misapprehension is that those wishing to evacuate (whether encouraged or not) will be advised of when and where to go, in time to do so safely. This requires personal responsibility in planning and practice.
An aspect of deep concern sure to stem from the ‘preferred evacuation’ proposal is that the more that people are encouraged to ‘get away’ from a bushfire threat, the less they will bother about learning safe practices. There is already a dangerous misconception that only those who intend to defend need have this knowledge. Everyone: defenders, evacuees and passive shelterers need it. The money and effort put into promoting the ‘everybody out’ policy, should instead go into mandatory education in the full range of bushfire-safe behaviour for those who choose potentially lethal life-styles by living in the bush.
Education in what to do when a bushfire threatens, when to do it, and why, must become standard in schools and workplaces, for new arrivals and senior citizens. Only through this will we build up a ballast of life-and-home-saving knowledge in the national psyche that will see future bushfires reacted to capably and confidently by fully informed communities.
It has been achieved in Iceland for safety during volcano eruptions. It can be achieved in Australia for safety during bushfire eruptions.