Saturday, February 16, 2013

Evacuating from a bushfire threat 
is not always the safest option

The information promoted by bushfire authorities in the eastern states, that ‘Leaving early is your only safe option on Code Red days’ has no basis in fact. All research evidence is to the contrary.
From a few bushfires, home defence could be perilous and early evacuation wise. From most bushfires home defence is practicable, and evacuation may be an over-reaction.
Officials instilling this post-20009 fear that under severe bushfire conditions no homes can be saved, that death is almost certain for those who try to defend them, and who urge general evacuation, have not thoroughly thought through the multiple possible scenarios and consequences of this policy.
For one thing:
Whether leaving is the safest option depends on so many factors:
·        whether travelling for a long or short distance
·        whether travelling through forested areas, or through open country
·        A night-before evacuation is not possible if fire starts close by from arson or accident
·        early morning safe evacuation is not possible when lightning starts fires at night
·        leaving is extremely dangerous if fire is between home and evacuation destination
·        leaving is extremely dangerous when there are multiple fires that day.
On extreme and ‘Code Red’ days there are always multiple fires, often in many regions and sometimes lasting or days. The very conditions in which evacuation is urged can cause fresh fire outbreaks en route, etc., trapping streams of evacuating cars between fires.

Sydney evacuees cut off between fires                      2009 evacuees trapped on 'escape' route

For another:
For families to pack up and relocate infants, school children, aged parents and pets many times a summer; for farmers to desert their animals; for traders and businesses to shut up shop; for doctors to abandon patients and for hospitals to outsource their ill is not a workable solution. Not everybody has a car. There are many financially needy, aged and disabled rural residents who normally rely on others for transport. At a time of evacuation, they may not be able to depend on this. The usual ‘lift’ may plan to stay and defend their home. If they evacuate, piled high as it will be with their own family, pets and possessions, there may not be room in their car for an extra person.
For a third:
Historically, over 100 years, more people have died evacuating that staying: and this is because when circumstances require it, traditionally many people cannot, and most will not evacuate early enough.
For a fourth:
The greater percentage of destroyed homes have been evacuated or otherwise unattended. Losing a home creates as much, or more, trauma than the effort of defending it.
For a fifth:
Authorities urge householders to remember that if they stay to defend their home’ it will be scary, physically and mentally tiring, hard to see, hard to breathe, very noisy, and very hot’. So also it will be all these things huddled in the open on such days on a beach or in the middle of a sports’ oval.

Assumptions have been made about the dangers of home defence and staying to shelter without any evidential basis: People died defending their homes: therefore defending means death. People died ‘staying’: therefore staying means death.
The 2009 Royal Commission into the Victorian Bushfires took no evidence on this. Nor did it investigate why so many homes were safely saved, and how.
Research was carried out, however, by scientists from the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre (Bushfire CRC) after the RC closed.
Far from giving justification for the ‘stay and you may die’ outcry, this showed that the vast majority of fatalities of those who stayed with their houses were not caused by the fact of staying. That they were caused by staying without having sufficient knowledge, and without having been sufficiently prepared in advance. The post Black Saturday findings of bushfire scientist John Handmer and colleagues* showed that only 5% of those who died at home on Black Saturday were engaged in any kind of  active defence, and that very few of  those who died had a comprehensive fire plan. It concluded that that awareness, knowledge, and appropriate reaction, could have saved them. 
Another research survey found that ‘most (80%) of the homes which were actively defended survived’**.
It is extremely rare for people who are very well prepared and practiced to die defending their homes. It is entirely possible for people thoroughly prepared physically, emotionally and knowledgeably, who have reduced the flammable vegetation from around an ember-protected house, to safely defend it on Code Red or any other days.
Bushfire investigators estimated that ‘slightly over 2,000 of the 6,000 homes located in the fireground were lost’. And over two thirds of houses survived that ‘Code Red’ fire.

      Kinglake                                                                               Marysville
               Houses survived‘catastrophic’ Black Saturday 20009
Many, many, householders who understood how to react safely to a bushfire threat, and had thoroughly worked out and frequently practiced plans, did save their homes, their precious possessions, and their families together on that exceptional day. As they have in the past, time and again. Many have written to me that it was the knowledge obtained from my books that enabled them to do so.
Sadly, on days of heart-rending decision-making, many families are persuaded that, ‘It doesn’t matter about the house’. But it matters afterwards. Afterwards, when they stand in front of the pile of rubble that was once the essence of their life.

It matters afterwards - evacuees live in tents after their homes were destroyed,  20009.
Authorities have been unable to cope with post-Black Saturday rebuilding needs. The only way to counteract this trend is for people to know how to make themselves, their bush-surrounded towns, and their homes safer from bushfires.
The purpose of Essential Bushfire Safety Tips is to enable and empower this process.