Know the bushfire’s behaviour, manage the bushfire, protect the house, protect the nation.

Have we forgotten the wisdom and knowledge of the past?

Handmer and Tibbits (2005) summarised a sample of the wisdom and knowledge of the past. Their 2005 article was a submission to the Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission. We have sorted these entries according to the list in your choices during a severe bushfire attack.

View the full article (10 pages) Handmer and Tibbits Article

1 . Stay and defend

Handbook by Australian fire scientist Harry Luke (1961) gives practical advice about preparing the home for the fire season, and how to behave in a bushfire. He states “if all possible preliminary precautions have been taken before the fire…the house and its environs should be the safest place of refuge.” And he adds until a house actually catches fire from flying firebrands (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.

S. A. Bushfires Enquiry Review Team (1983)
The chances of saving homes are increased if occupants can extinguish spot fires when the fire front has passed. Removal of ground fuel before the onset of summer is critical to survival prospects.

Wilson and Ferguson (1984)
Attended houses survived far more often than unattended houses. If persons in attendance were able-bodied, house survival was 90%.

Ash Wednesday Bushfire Review Committee (1984)
“In principle, people who choose to stay and defend their home or property should be allowed to do so”

Ramsay et al., (1986)
Initial ignition by embers will by definition start very small fires which can be extinguished by vigilant people. They specifically state that they found no evidence for general combustion of exterior cladding or spontaneous explosions triggered by radiant heat.

The ACT government’s inquiry into the January 2003 bushfires
It found that ‘people who are well-prepared and take shelter in their homes have an excellent chance of survival. Homes will also be saved if people remain to extinguish small fires that start in and around them’ (McLeod, 2003, p. 189).

2 . Stay and shelter

Staying is seen as safer than leaving at the last minute, but even this relies on those staying understanding that they may have to be proactive and, at the least, being prepared and able to leave the structure once the fire front passes if fire takes hold. The logic here being that the bushfire front takes only minutes to pass and, while unpleasant, it is then possible to survive outside.

The Dandenong Ranges fires of 1997 caused people to question the ‘safe to stay'” doctrine. These fires resulted in the loss of three lives, all having died while sheltering in a house. This case highlights the importance of residents understanding what to do if they choose to stay. It also emphasises that staying is not simply passively “sheltering in place”-it involves active defence.

3 . Leave early – before fire arrives

Auditor General Victoria, 2002, p. 19
‘CFA’s [Country Fire Authority] formal advice to leave by 10.00 am on all days of high fire danger whether there is a fire in the area or not), while clear and unambiguous, may be too extreme to be accepted as practical by most in the general community.’

The CFA has since varied its advice and recommends that residents who do not plan to stay during a fire, leave well before a fire threatens the area and travel before roads become hazardous. This is probably more realistic in terms of what most people can do and addresses the Auditor General’s concerns, but may be too vague for people seeking guidance.

4 . Leave if threatened

Handmer and Tibbits (2005) summarise the long held belief in Australia that shelter inside a house is safer than evacuating late. Eg, Luke and McArthur (1978) wrote that remaining in one’s house is preferable to trying to escape at the last minute.

5 . Be told or be forced under pressure – Compulsory Evacuation

Luke and McArthur (1978)
“Though staying in a house is usually preferable, orderly evacuation has saved many lives. Equally it has resulted in the loss of many houses.”

Ash Wednesday Bushfire Review Committee (1984)
It opposed evacuating communities in the face of approaching bushfire.

Handmer and Tibbits (2005) concluded:
The “stay or go” approach highlights the tension between the ideology and practical need of asking those at risk to take more responsibility for managing their own risks; and the steady expansion of police powers by governments; This expansion of powers reduces the legally available options for those wanting to protect their own property as they may be ordered to leave at any time-thereby importing an inherent ambiguity into the approach.


For your Reference …  What is compulsory evacuation and what are your rights?


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