Bushfire evacuation madness

I have been watching the Victorian Royal Commission into the tragic bushfires earlier in 2009 with great interest.  Probably with more interest than the average observer since I live in a wooden house in a very small suburb surrounded by bushland national parks.

A recent article notes the potential role for social networking like Facebook, Twitter in new bushfire policy. This is an interesting move. It would definitely enable ordinary people to obtain up-to-date & relevant information more easily.

But the real thrust of this article is that the government wants people to leave early. This is a very hard thing to know.

One of the most prominent things in my memory of living through a large and dangerous bushfire is how little information is available. Nobody can tell you where the fire is coming from or where is likely to go. Once during the bushfires of 2002 we even had a Sydney suburban fire truck pull up at our house to ask where the fire was. Up until now even the fire fighting authorities have not had access to good information.

When do you go & how do you know when to leave? Example, a few years ago on a very hot summer day four friends visited my house for a BBQ . As our lunch progressed the temperature soared to about 40 degrees C. At about 3pm our friends decided to leave and jumped into the their cars for the 40 minute trip back to Sydney.

Just after we had tidied up we received a phone call from one of our friends – they were stuck in a major traffic jam on the F3 (the major road from the north into Sydney) due to a bushfire a few suburbs away. We had not even known that there was a large bushfire burning only 10 minutes drive away from our house.

That traffic jam lasted for about four hours until the fire was controlled sufficiently for our friends and the other motorists to drive through.

The other experience we had was during the 2002 fires when our town was cut off by bushfires for three days without power (so no radio, phone, etc.) and by the time we found out about the fire it had already cut off the roads and we could not leave.

Based on my experience bushfire evacuations have the following issues that need to be overcome:

1) it is hard to know when it is time to evacuate
2) it is hard to know if it is safe to evacuate in a particular direction
3) it is hard to know if there is a fire threatening your area
4) nobody knows what is going on & there is no single authoritative and up-to-date source of information
5) once the power goes out all the other issues are multiplied significantly

Based on the Victorian experience it looks to me like some kind of community refuge is imperative for our town. I will definitely be discussing it with our neighbours.

3 thoughts on “Bushfire evacuation madness

  1. Bernie Broom

    Stay or go? Is your house defensible and are you fully equipped and prepared to defend it? If yes, you can stay. If not, go. When? Before 10 am on every TFB day – 25-30 times a year. These are good rules for people like me living in clearly bush areas, and I don’t send my family out every TFB because I assess the local danger on the day – with knowledge one can be flexible. But the rules don’t work in suburban areas or small towns like Marysville that got hit on Feb 7. Can’t evacuate every small town in SW Australia every TFB! And while the ‘normal’ big fire move slow enough to allow local evacuation, something as big & fast as Feb 7 probably doesn’t. Comms were bad that day but whatever we invest in equipment, people & process I doubt we can practice it enough to be able to evacuate safely from an immediate danger.
    I think refuges are part of the answer – in my brigade we maintain the sprinklers on the community hall that used to be an official refuge, so we can use it if need be, but there is no sanction from the council, govt or CFA hierachy.
    The other part of the answer is in much stronger community fire education and support to Community Fireguard Groups, both of which are woefully funded in Victoria. I was on a tanker fighting the Feb 7 fire in St Andrews and Kinglake and from what I saw and have heard since I am convinced that at least some of the people who died could have saved themselves if they had had more knowledge.

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    1. Bernie – thanks very much for your comments. I think you raise very good points. After the Victorian fires one of the areas we’re focusing on as part of our personal preparation is suvivability. Thus in addition to water tanks, sprinklers, etc we are investing personal protection equipment such as breathing masks and fireproof shelters. Before we were just focusing on property defence but now issues of individual survival are on my agenda too. It is imperative to take personal responsibility if one chooses to live in a bushland area.

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