Some of the 172 people that died in the Black Saturday bushfires in the Australian state of Victoria in 2009 made a conscious decision to stay at home, rather than evacuate. The Stay-or-Go option that has been used in Victoria for years did not turn out well during the extreme fire behavior on Black Saturday.
…According to geographers Saffron O’Neill of Melbourne University and John Handmer with RMIT University, the state’s fire preparedness strategies must be “transformed” or the next “complex” bushfire will cost far more than Black Saturday’s 172 lives and $3.5 billion in damage.
According to Professor Handmer and Dr O’Neill, most people who died in the fires left the decision to leave their homes too late or had fire plans containing “fatal flaws” — such as sheltering in a bathroom or other small room — where they were unaware of what was happening to the rest of the house and had no way to escape when the house caught fire.
“This is not a small step or a small change,” said Professor Handmer of the vulnerabilities he and Dr O’Neill detail today in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
“We are the victims of our own success,” said Dr Handmer, noting that strategies for preparing for and coping with ordinary bushfires were totally inadequate in the face of hot, fast-moving wildfires.
The researchers recommend policymakers focus on four areas: diminishing the hazard — for instance, by altering electrical power distribution systems; reducing the exposure of infrastructure and buildings by prohibiting housing in high-hazard areas; reducing the vulnerability of people — by, for example, identifying disabled people; and boosting the adaptive capacity of institutions such as insurers and firefighters.
“The fire was just taking off,” [Blackfeet Homeland Security Director Robert] DesRosier continued. “I was just behind [Browning Fire Chief] Dustin Boggs, and what I saw was just amazing. It was moving so fast with the wind, around 40 to 50 miles per hour, across the prairie, so I made the call to evacuate the Boarding Dorm. That was the main priority, to get the Boarding Dorm evacuated, but high winds dominated and everything was happening so fast that we only had about 30 minutes to pull it off.”
…It was then that DesRosier got a call to return to Browning and set up an Incident Command Center at the Blackfeet Fire Cache. The Blackfeet Tribe designated the Tribal Offices as a temporary shelter for evacuees. “That’s a great community story right there,” said DesRosier. “I assumed Area Command because that’s when we heard about the Y Fire, so I had to divide resources.”
The second major conflagration began just west of the junction of U.S. Highways 2 and 89, called the “Y,” and eventually ran east over about 17 miles of prairie. DesRosier appointed separate Incident Commanders at each fire and designated the resources to be sent out.
“It went really smoothly, to divide the resources but still do the evacuations and warnings because life and safety are the number one priority – all our efforts are set to protect human life, then property,” DesRosier said.
The Victoria state government in Australia has introduced some videos that are intended to shock residents into evacuating before the approach of a bushfire makes it too late. The videos feature audio recordings of people panicking as bushfires approach their homes
HERE is a link to another version of the public service video.
And speaking of down under firefighting, here is a video about the trial of two Canadian air tankers in Australia, Convair CV580s:
The policy that people in well-prepared homes can save their property and their lives in the face of a raging bushfire is a myth and should be abandoned, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has heard.
The stay or go policy failed the community on Black Saturday because many people who prepared to stay and defend their homes were killed, lawyers assisting the commission said.
But the state government’s solicitor argued it was still safer for people to shelter in houses during a bushfire than be caught in the open when trying to flee at the last minute.
The commission has been told that 113 of 173 people killed in the February 7, 2009 bushfires died sheltering in homes.
Senior Counsel assisting the commission, Jack Rush, QC, said the government’s policy didn’t work because many people don’t make preparations to stay and defend, and fewer left early.
He said the assertion in the stay or go policy that “people protect houses, houses protect people” was a myth and the policy should be abandoned.
“We call for a replacement of the policy with a new policy based around evacuation as the primary protective action for a community that is threatened by fire.
“If evacuation is not possible, shelter options should be available to all communities that are threatened by fire.”
The Ramona Sentinel in California has an article about evacuation…. stay or go. Here is an excerpt:
The debate about whether to stay and attempt to defend your home or evacuate to a safe place when a wildfire strikes only has one answer in the mind of CalFire Battalion Chief Greg Griswold with the Ramona Fire Department.
“If you are asked to evacuate, please do. It makes our job so much easier,” Griswold said. “If we know that you are still in an area, we have to keep that in the back of our minds, and worry about what you are doing and whether you are safe or not.
“I know that this is a very emotional subject and I understand that people want to stay and protect their homes—we all do. But in my experience, people who don’t evacuate panic when the fire gets there, and then they feel a need to leave. But by then, the visibility can be down to zero sometimes and they can run off the road.”
Or they block roads so that firefighters can’t get in and other residents can’t get out, said Griswold.
“In the Witch fire in October 2007, we had no less than 40 rescue calls from people who wanted to stay and changed their mind,” Griswold said.
And firefighters were not able to reach all of those needing help. Some homeowners survived by jumping into ponds and pools, but a couple on Highland Valley Road were not so fortunate and perished in the flames.
“We tried to get two fire engines in there to help but could not,” Griswold said. “I still think about that every day.”
But saving lives is not the only issue here.
“Rescue attempts take away valuable resources that could be spent on saving structures and trying to take the offense to suppress fire activity,” Griswold said. “As the years of drought have persisted, the burning conditions have become more critical and we have huge challenges in this area. The 2003 and 2007 fires burned hotter and faster than anything we’ve ever seen before. I think a lot of people were taken by surprise.”
Technically, fire and police officials cannot force people to leave their home against their will, unless they have minor children. And there are times that it might be safe to stay, Griswold said.
“But when an evacuation is ordered, we don’t have time to go to each homeowner and say, ‘You’ve got clearance, it’s OK for you to stay, but it’s not OK for your neighbor. They must leave.”