Over many years, experience showed that many people who died in bushfires across Australia perished when caught by fires on the road, whether in their cars or on foot. By the late 1990s, it was generally accepted by fire agencies that staying to defend a well-prepared home, or leaving for a safe place well before a fire threat appeared, were the two best survival options for a bushfire.
This led to the formal development of the Prepare, stay and defend your property or leave early policy, often shortened by the public and in the media as “stay or go”.
With the establishment of the Bushfire CRC in 2003, research led by Professor John Handmer at RMIT University was begun to test the anecdotal evidence underpinning “stay or go” as well as the legal and other implications of fire and other agencies giving advice on the policy to communities.
A key piece of work that underpinned the policy was the review by Dr Kat Haynes of 100 years of bushfire deaths in Australia to 2008. Dr Haynes found that most fatalities occurred in the open when victims fled the flames at the last moment, highlighting the fact that last minute evacuation was the highest risk strategy. The study indicated that most deaths in houses were due to inhabitants sheltering rather than actively defending. Women, children and the elderly were particularly vulnerable.
A review of the legal underpinning of this policy analysed the shift in risk and responsibility between the homeowner and the authorities. This legal analysis was an essential complement to the broader research project on this policy aimed at managers responsible for implementing the policy into practice.
Josh Whittaker’s PhD study at RMIT University examined what made some communities vulnerable to bushfire. Using the communities affected by the 2003 East Gippsland fires, Josh identified the factors that made some communities more resilient than others. This was conveyed to the 2009 Royal Commission and directly to fire agencies.
“By developing an understanding of the underlying causes of vulnerability to bushfires, the research caninform strategic planning and policies that build the capacity of rural communities to cope with bushfires,” said Whittaker.
Francesca Harris-Spence’s PhD at the University of Adelaide lookedat how local communities and organisations plan for and manage bushfires. This research examinedtwo volunteer fire fighting brigades and their communities – the first in the Adelaide Hills and the second in the hills suburbs to the east of Perth.
Mae Proudley’s postgraduate study focused on the January 2005 Wangary bushfire on the Lower Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. She looked at the bushfire experience from a domestic perspective by exploring, through face-to-face interviews, how families respond and recover from a severe bushfire.
The outputs of this project and numerous other related Bushfire CRC projects were compiled in the book Community Bushfire Safety. This important book was launched in 2008 at a high profile event to senior representatives of the fire and emergency management sector. It has a wealth of information for communities and fire agencies aiding in the transfer of social science research outputs into changes in community behaviour.
The February 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires seriously challenged many of the assumptions behind the policy of staying and defending or leaving early. Of the 173 people who died, 113 perished inside their homes and a further 27 just outside them. Just 11 died in cars fleeing the fires with a further 10 dying on roadways, while many people successfully escaped approaching flames by car.
Professor Handmer’s Bushfire CRC team undertook extensive research into the Black Saturday deaths for the Royal Commission established after the fires. Both Professor Handmer and Dr Haynes presented evidence to the Royal Commission on Bushfire CRC research outputs.
Among the findings of their research, they highlighted a significant unawareness of the general fire risk, a lack of appreciation that 7 February 2009 was a day requiring a different approach due to the extreme conditions, and limited knowledge about what to do. Some people were dismissive of the risk. Many had limited capacity to undertake preparation and property defence.
“Although nearly half the [people who died] had a fire plan, these were of very variable quality,” they found. “Few fire plans were comprehensive, addressing all issues necessary to cope with the conditions experienced on the day. There appear to be few cases of [those who died] having a contingency plan for when their preferred course of action ceased to be viable. A significant proportion of [those who died] were taken by surprise by the fires. Others appeared to be waiting for an official warning before activating their plans. Many falsely assumed that they would receive a specific warning or that they could obtain help by calling 000.”
As a result of the research, the final report of the Royal Commission called for a revision of Victoria’s bushfire safety policy. And Bushfire CRC researchers aided AFAC in its new position paper Bushfires and Community Safety, published in September 2010.