A long history of staying to defend

Created date

Friday, December 3, 2010 - 12:19am

In the summer of 1909/10, my Great Grandparents faced the risk of losing everything to a bushfire.  Emily and Charles Handmer lived on a farm 6 kms north of Knowsley near Bendigo, by the state forest on a road now known as Handmer Track.  All the men were interstate.  The five women and girls used buckets of water to put out ember attacks on the bark roofs of the farm buildings while Grandfather lay ill inside.  Neighbours came, and with their help – and a wind change - the buildings and farm equipment were saved. 

They stayed and battled the fire, and never considered leaving.  This was long ago and they did not have the means to flee rapidly.  But it highlights the reality for many rural people:  that the home is closely tied to livelihoods, and abandoning it can mean a lot more than an insurance claim and the shock of loss.  The welfare of livestock must be considered.  There is also the reality that it may be impractical and dangerous to evacuate with the risk of trying to drive through heavy smoke or being caught in the open by the fire front.

Reports from the Black Friday fires of 1939 also mention examples of the successful use of buildings and “dugouts” as life-saving shelters. The threatened settlements were mostly associated with timber-mills scattered through the Victorian forests. Many died fleeing, and the survival of people was considered ‘miraculous’.  However, most stories of survival tell of people sheltering in structures, and being vigilant in extinguishing embers.

Bushfire scientists also offered advice, drawing on their experience and research.  Typical is the advice in a 1961 publication entitled “Bushfire Prevention Hints for Country Men and Women”. The author states; “if all possible preliminary precautions have been taken before the fire … the house and its environs should be the safest place of refuge.” He adds:  “Until a house actually catches fire from flying fire-brands (and with the precautions that have been mentioned we can hope this will not happen) the safest place for children and invalids should be in the house.” The only evacuation this author mentions is possible evacuation to a burnt-out field as a last resort.

Staying and protecting homes, assets and people has a history in rural Australia long predating the official “Stay or go early” policy.  Australian rural dwellings have been timber with corrugated iron or tile roofing surrounded by gardens that often act to help shield buildings from fires and embers.

This rural experience has formed part of the basis for the policy we know as “Prepare, stay and defend, or leave early”.  Historical evidence in Australia has shown that the most dangerous option, and the cause of most fatalities, is last minute evacuation.  The purpose of the approach known as “Stay or go early” has been to avoid these dangerous evacuations, by either leaving early before a fire threatens or staying and defending.  It has become a key part of bushfire community safety across rural and urban Australia. 

No approach is risk free

Early on in the life of the Bushfire CRC we reviewed the evidence for the approach.  This evidence is drawn from scientific studies, coronial inquests, post-fire research (particularly after Ash Wednesday in 1983), oral histories of rural people, fatality data, and the experiences of fire fighters.  It indicated that the policy both improved the safety of people and reduced property loss. No approach is risk free, and successful implementation of the policy is subject to a number of conditions concerning knowledge, fire intensity, water supply, the defendability of the property, and timely warnings for those planning to leave. 

There are three important pieces of evidence:  that houses catch fire from embers, and houses can be made resistant to ember attack; that well-prepared people can save houses; and that late evacuations are very dangerous as they may take people into areas of zero visibility or the fire front.  Our review was published in 2005.  We continue to examine the policy in the light of changes such as new fire experiences, the expanding urban interface and “tree changers”, changes in people’s expectations, absentee landlords, changing building and garden styles, and an apparent increase in fire weather risk.

Seeking the safest approach

The Saturday 7 February fires occurred in fire weather conditions that appear to lie well outside our experiences.  In the aftermath of the fires it is obvious that most aspects of our fire and emergency management, and all our standard policies and practices should be subject to major review.  “Stay or Go early” is no exception.  Some people are proposing apparently simple solutions, including a national warning system – important but we need a more reliable mobile network to carry warnings; new building regulations – but maybe we should wait until the building forensic work from the fire is complete; or universal mandatory evacuation.  In an ideal situation, mandatory evacuation might be effective.  However, things are rarely ideal. 

Forced evacuations often take place at the last minute as the fire front arrives, forcing people out into the most intense part of the fire.  In addition, some people refuse to go, others are simply missed by the evacuation order, while others will attempt to go back into the fire affected area to collect or save their pets, children and properties.  We know this because almost all the published material on evacuation concerns how to get people to leave and what makes them more or less inclined to do so – rather than asking the question:  what is the safest approach given that all approaches have flaws?  

Professor John Handmer is Innovation Professor in Risk and Sustainability at RMIT University in Melbourne where he is head of the Centre for Risk and Community Safety. He is the Program Leader for Program C: Community self-sufficiency for fire safety of the Bushfire CRC.  He is also an Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University.  He has authored and edited numerous books and other publications on emergency management, particularly relating to fire and flooding.  

(This article first appeared in the Autumn 2009 issue of Fire Australia magazine.)

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Principal Scientific Adviser, Program Leader, Project Leader, Researcher
Alerts and Warnings, Community Safety