But people in the region, people directly in the path of the firestorm who were relying on their radios, TVs and internet to keep them informed, did not know. Power company SP AusNet was warned that its assets were under threat at Kinglake but residents of the town were told nothing. He was perplexed and angry that people in the path of the fire were not given the benefit of the latest information about the fire front. He and his wife were ready to leave should they learn that the fire was coming their way.
They followed the news of the Kilmore East fire and heard that Wandong had come under attack. They knew that this meant that the fire had jumped the Hume Highway and, worryingly, had reached the dense, tall forests of Mount Disappointment.
Soon afterwards, the wind changed. While residents remained uninformed during the afternoon, roadblocks were put in place in some of the threatened areas. In several reported cases, locals were allowed through only if they were returning to their homes.
As Manne reported, police ordered several residents to return to their homes in Pine Ridge Road in Kinglake West where they perished shortly afterwards. Evacuation was being discouraged and returning home was being facilitated, even in some cases demanded.
Threat warnings were being suppressed by the bureaucracy. It is connected to the Stay or Go policy. As sinister as all these actions seem, they were consistent with a fear of late evacuations and a faith in the safety of the home. How did such a policy evolve and become so strong by ? There had been intimations of the policy as early as the late s.
Then, in , Australians were shocked when seventeen people died at Lara, between Melbourne and Geelong, in or escaping from their cars as a grassfire swept across a major highway surrounded by open paddocks.
Travelling through a fire was clearly perilous, even in modern cars and on a broad, multi-lane highway. But it was the Ash Wednesday firestorm of that prompted a clear change of policy. Ash Wednesday, which was like Black Friday in intensity if not in range, confronted the modern firefighting community with the limits of its capacity and technology. It also brought tragedy.
Seventeen firefighters died that day, most of them next to their well-equipped tankers on a forest road in Upper Beaconsfield when the wind changed and the firestorm swept over them. The experience forced changes in firefighting strategies and philosophies. How to save firefighters from sacrificing themselves? How to get the community more engaged and better informed? The Stay or Go policy, which had been developing quietly since and evolved from these good questions, began to be articulated more clearly from People had been reminded that some firestorms cannot be stopped or even hindered, even by the most sophisticated of firefighting forces.
Fire expert David Packham, an early advocate of Stay or Go, survived the Ash Wednesday fire by successfully defending his own home at Upper Beaconsfield. It was a close call, but seemed to confirm the proposition that people were in less danger staying put than evacuating late, especially with the tragic example of superbly equipped and trained firefighters caught on the road nearby. This was the crux of the policy: Since radiant heat was a major killer and houses were most at risk from ember attack, the partnership made sense.
The policy was founded on an assumption that a fire front takes only minutes to pass, a belief that would be challenged by many accounts of Black Saturday.
These feelings encouraged the aspiration to articulate a national policy rather than a series of local responses. A generation after sawmilling communities were withdrawn from the bush following the recommendations of Judge Stretton in , communities were again being established deep in the forests. This was always going to be a dangerous amalgam, as it had been before, but it was made even more so by the fashion for native gardens that developed strongly from the s.
This proliferating zone — spreading along winding bush roads — called for new protective measures and different firefighting philosophies. Their account shows a strengthening articulation, especially since Ash Wednesday, of faith in the safety of the home — always in contrast to late evacuation. New fires and the enquiries they generated interacted with the policy, generally confirming it.
The Sydney fires of , the —03 fires in Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, and the Eyre Peninsula fires in South Australia in seemed to show that people who stayed and defended their homes had a better chance of survival than late evacuees.
On the Eyre Peninsula, eight of the nine deaths occurred in cars. The Dandenong Ranges fires of , in which all three victims died in their homes, seemed to challenge the policy, especially as none of their neighbours perished despite some very late evacuations.
Their chances of survival are excellent, and 90 per cent can expect to save their houses. But the death statistics are much more ambiguous than this suggests. But it would be equally valid to say that of the forty-six deaths, around a third died defending their homes fifteen , a third died evacuating eighteen , and a third died firefighting in the open thirteen.
Or we could say even more bluntly that five out of the six people who died at Mount Macedon that day were killed in or near their homes. In other words, for such an influential piece of research — research said to establish the relative safety of the home — the evidence is surprisingly inconclusive. Of those five deaths in or near homes at Mt Macedon, Wilson and Ferguson argued that all the people were over fifty-five, one was disabled and one lived in a steep, forested location exposed to a fully developed crown fire.
Ash Wednesday confirmed the enduring bush wisdom that late evacuation in a bushfire is perilous. It also reminded us that many houses burn down after the fire front has passed. Therefore people can indeed save homes, and many did on Black Saturday. But Ash Wednesday, contrary to accepted opinion, did not prove that homes can save people. And Black Saturday would demolish the mantra completely. It was a utopian ideal, and for the various reasons scientists and managers were keen to explain, real life did not always live up to it.
You needed the right kind of people, properly prepared and living in the right kind of houses, to make it come true. Since it was relied on heavily by the royal commission and by fire and emergency services officers, it is worth scrutinising its use of evidence. And over just the last fifty years, the proportion of deaths of people defending their properties increased to 39 per cent, compared to 29 per cent for those evacuating late.
Everyone accepts that late evacuations are perilous. But even before Black Saturday, it appears that staying and defending could be described as the most dangerous choice a homeowner could make. After Black Saturday, of course, no matter how you read the statistics, that is definitely the case. Like Handmer and Tibbits, and Wilson and Ferguson, Haynes and her co-authors seek to attribute deaths in houses to the capacity or behaviour of the people inside. Their analysis is also unable to apply any discrimination to the process of evacuation.
People sometimes leave late because the threat is much greater than they imagined or their house is about to burn, even if their initial decision was to stay and defend. Successful evacuations are not measured. It is very surprising that the royal commission was led to believe that this was the only piece of historical research on this issue and that it accepted it without historical scrutiny.
Rachel Doyle, the same senior counsel who ruthlessly pursued Christine Nixon about her whereabouts on the night of the fire, seemingly subjected this influential and crucial research to a perfunctory examination.
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