Report Finds Australia’s Wildfire Warning System ‘Dangerously Flawed’

August 20, 2009

A major inquiry into Australia’s wildfire disaster earlier this year has found that warning systems are dangerously flawed, and residents in vulnerable areas need better, faster information to escape quick-moving infernos.

In its interim report, the government-appointed commission into the blazes that killed 173 people also said a policy allowing residents to decide for themselves whether to evacuate their homes needs to be changed to encourage more people to leave early.

“We all need to learn from this terrible disaster,” Victoria state Premier John Brumby told reporters in Melbourne, “and we need from those learnings to put in place new practices that will make our state safer than it’s ever been before.”

The fires that ripped across Victoria on Feb. 7 were the deadliest in Australia’s history, killing 173 people and destroying more than 2,000 homes. The speed and ferocity of the blazes overwhelmed firefighters and caught many off guard, with some victims complaining they had no notice of the looming danger.

The commission, led by former Victoria Supreme Court Justice Bernard Teague, said warnings during the fires were dangerously inadequate.

“There were a number of weaknesses and failures with Victoria’s information and warning systems,” the report said.”Warnings were often delayed which meant that many people were not warned at all or the amount of time they had to respond to the warnings was much less than it should have been. The warnings that were issued often did not give people a clear understanding of the location and severity of the fire and how they should respond.”

Since the fires, the government has approved the creation of a national disaster alert telephone service that will automatically send warnings for a range of disasters to cell phones and landlines. Brumby said the system should be in place by the start of the next wildfire season, which generally begins in November.

“In relation to communication and some of our technology, these didn’t work as well as they should have and could have on that day,” Brumby acknowledged.

Brumby also said the government has already put in place many of the 51 recommendations the commission listed in its report, such as providing emergency responders with better equipment.

Since the deadly blazes, questions have swirled around the widespread policy of allowing residents in high-risk areas to decide for themselves whether to stay and fight the fires or flee.

The policy recognizes that Australia’s wildfire services – made up largely of volunteers – lack the resources to protect every house. Homeowners are therefore allowed to try to protect their property.

But the report found that 113 of the victims died while trying to defend their homes. The commission said the policy fails to emphasize the dangers associated with staying behind, and recommends officials stress that leaving early is the safest option. “For those who choose to stay and defend, the risks should be spelt out more plainly, including the risk of death,” the report said.

Among the commission’s other suggestions are a push for fire refuges to be established in communities by designating open spaces such as race tracks and parking lots as safer alternatives for residents who find themselves facing an approaching inferno.

“Our focus is on going forward,” Country Fire Authority chief Russell Rees told reporters. “It’s very clear that those fires exposed weaknesses in some of our systems and technologies and our focus is absolutely committed toward the future.”

The commission’s final report is not due until July 2010, but the Victorian government requested an interim report so officials can take preventative steps before the next wildfire season. The commission has already called 87 witnesses over 35 days of hearings in one of the largest and most complex disaster investigations ever seen in Australia.

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