Australia bushfires report calls for changes

July 31, 2010 12:00 am

, SYDNEY, Jul 31 – Cowering in their homes or fleeing in sheer terror, 173 Australians died in a firestorm of unparalleled ferocity, a report found Saturday, detailing a disaster plagued by "systemic failings" and chaos.

The Royal Commission into last February\’s so-called "Black Saturday" wildfires handed down a mammoth four-volume report of findings and recommendations about Australia\’s worst natural disaster.

It called for an overhaul of the controversial "stay or go" policy allowing residents to stay and defend their homes instead of forcible evacuation, saying the emphasis needed to recognise that some fires simply weren\’t defendable.

"The rigours of mounting a defence in the face of fires such as those on Black Saturday caught many by surprise," the commission said.

Nearly half of those who died were classed as "vulnerable," the report said, because they were aged under 12 or over 70, or because they were suffering from some illness or disability.

Commissioner Bernard Teague said the report was an "important part of securing the memory of the fires", documenting publicly and in detail for the first time how many of the victims died with little warning, even those who were thoroughly prepared.

The volume dedicated to the 173 victims makes for harrowing reading — young families entombed in their cellars, a six-year-old girl who burned to death as her home exploded around her because she was too afraid to follow her parents.

Some bodies weren\’t found until weeks after the fires, when painstaking searches were made of rural blocks where terrified people had fled across searing ground seeking shelter in bushland behind their homes.

"The ground was so hot it had burned his shoes off, leaving his feet completely exposed and badly burnt," Teague wrote of one man, Darrin Gibson, who tried to get his three-year-old son, Jye, and 22-month-old daughter, Ava, to shelter in a waterhole as fire rained down around them.

He lost Jye in the heat and smoke and "no longer able to walk, he crawled back to the dam, where he and Ava sheltered."

Gibson woke from a month-long coma with serious burns to learn Ava had died in hospital from her injuries. His partner, Lesley, and Jye both burned to death on their property, among the 113 people killed inside or close to buildings.

The commission found that the response "faltered because of confusion about responsibilities and accountabilities and some important deficiencies of leadership."

No single agency took charge of the emergency and the chain of command was unclear, with leadership "wanting", particularly from the then-police commissioner Christine Nixon, who went out to dinner as the disaster reached its peak, the inquiry said.

"When considered collectively, the problems illustrate systemic failings," it said.

Widespread problems with radios and telephones made it difficult to track the response and at times "conditions were chaotic on the fireground," it said.

Warnings to communities were too vague and in some cases far too late, and there was inadequate evacuation or provision of shelters and refuges for those in the fire\’s path, with evacuations described as "ad hoc".

The report recommended urgent upgrade of ageing electricity infrastructure in fire-prone areas, with one-third of the most dangerous blazes directly caused by fallen power lines or other electricity assets.

It also called for the government to buy out and resettle people living in unacceptably high-risk areas and ban building there, as well as requiring buildings in fire areas to adhere to stricter standards.

Backburning — deliberately burning off areas of bush to reduce fuel for wildfires — should also be ramped up to five percent of public land every year, the Commission said, from the current level of 1.7 percent.

"Although it might be possible to reduce the number of severe fires and to be better prepared for fire, bushfire will never be eliminated from the Australian landscape," it said.



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