Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lessons Of The Victorian Bushfires Important For All Australians

The interim report of the Victorian bushfires royal commission has covered many of the issues which emerged in the wake of the tragedy earlier this year. Front and centre is the controversial “stay or go” policy which has been found to have given people a false idea of the safety of selecting the “stay and defend” option. Indeed, the very idea of calling the policy “stay or go” implies that either is a valid choice, and that there is an element of safety attached to the choice to stay. While it might be argued that people should have the right to stay and defend their property, it should be clear that they also have the right to be properly informed as to the real risks of doing so.

The commission has found that the policy understated the risk of death associated with attempting to defend homes, leaving people to make such a choice without being fully informed. The commission also found that efforts to alert the public were inadequate, relying solely on ABC radio stations leaving commercial radio listeners in the dark. Indeed, modern technology can be harnessed to broadcast warnings across not only the media but also mobile phones and the internet, but those opportunities have also not been fully explored.

There was also considerable criticism of the co-ordination of the various agencies, and the lack of integration of their operations and their command structures. Such difficulties serve only to add to the confusion in an emergency situation, and to delay an effective response to the disaster. Rather than having a properly integrated command, the commission found that agencies essentially shared the same location without genuine co-ordination of their efforts. The interim report also identifies once again the need for fire refuges or shelters to be created, which is not a new idea, but has never been properly implemented.

The other major issue which was subject to vigorous debate after the fires was the question of fuel load reduction and preventive controlled burning. The commission has yet to deal with those questions, but already there is an expectation that a new approach to this risk management strategy needs to be adopted. The Victorian Premier John Brumby has indicated that, regardless of the final recommendations, a policy of reducing the fuel load along roadsides will be implemented to provide safer escape routes.

While the Victorian bushfires might seem to have been something that happened far away in another state, the reality is that the same threat exists for New South Wales. The same challenges must be confronted, the same issues must be debated and the same dangers must be dealt with. New South Wales has the opportunity to learn from the experience of Victoria without having to go through a similar tragedy. Past bushfires in our state indicate that such a thing can happen here, and the lessons from Victoria are a further warning of what will happen here if action is not taken.

Now is the time to take that action, before it is too late.

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