IN THE wake of disaster, blame is the easiest thing to spread. The Bushfires Royal Commission mostly avoided that temptation, however, in the interim report it released yesterday. It notes that on Black Saturday, February 7, when fires fanned by unprecedented extreme weather conditions caused the deaths of 173 people, Country Fire Authority chief officer Russell Rees ''did not become actively involved in operational issues'' and was not sufficiently well informed to perform a co-ordinating role. And, it recommends that the chief fire officer should have a statutory responsibility for the issuing of warnings and information. The great majority of its 51 recommendations, however, are concerned with the nature of the information that individuals and communities need to be properly prepared for a bushfire.
This report focuses on how Victoria's firefighting services can best prepare for the next bushfire season, which is now just over 10 weeks away, and which, the State Government has warned, has the potential for conditions even worse than those of Black Saturday.
The commission's recommendations leave in place the policy of ''Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early'', commonly known as ''stay or go'', which has long been the core of Victoria's bushfire response strategy. But they do not leave it intact. Indeed, the commission has advised a reinterpretation of ''stay or go'' so thoroughgoing that the policy can no longer be applied as traditionally intended. Hitherto, ''stay or go'' has rested on the understanding that the safest tactic, for those who are adequately prepared, is to stay and defend their homes. That assumption is turned on its head by the report: in future, it recommends, firefighting services should make clear to householders that the safest option is always to leave early.
This shift in emphasis, consequent upon the report's primary recommendation that saving human life must be the paramount obligation in bushfire responses, is potentially a revolutionary change. For it to be implemented effectively, the firefighting services and householders will have to assume new obligations, and the commission has not shrunk from setting them out. To stay, the report says, ''a number of conditions need to be satisfied''. It recommends that ''the CFA community education literature and advice be changed and improved to more realistically acknowledge the risks of extremely dangerous bushfires. For those who choose to stay and defend, the risks should be spelt out more plainly, including the risk of death. People should also be encouraged to recognise that not all houses are defendable in all situations …''
On the face of it, the greater burden of adapting to the new emphasis seems to fall on the CFA: comprehensive advice to householders on the defendability of their properties; a numeric scale of fire alerts similar to that used for cyclone warnings; clearer and more timely warnings, including the use of sirens, as fire fronts approach; and working closely with local councils to provide refuges. The voluntary principle acknowledged by the new and the old interpretations of ''stay or go'' is still honoured: the commission even prefers the term ''relocation'' to ''evacuation''. Continuance of the voluntary system, however, necessarily means that householders will also acquire much heavier responsibilities when the commission's recommendations are implemented, as Premier John Brumby has indicated they will be.
Someone who has received all the risk information from the CFA, but still chooses to stay and defend their property in cases of extreme danger, will be staking a great deal on their own judgment. And, the business of risk-taking being what it is, it may be assumed that insurers will be inclined to treat those who stay and defend differently after the recommendations are implemented. It would be neither unreasonable nor unfair for them to do so. The commission has taken the most practicable approach to changing Victoria's bushfire strategies. The abandonment of ''stay or go'', and its replacement by a policy of forcible evacuation, was never going to be feasible: even if those who live in bushfire-prone areas were to accept it, which is unlikely, Victoria's road system would make it extremely difficult to implement. But neither could the voluntary principle have been retained under its old interpretation. Two-thirds of Black Saturday's victims died in their homes, and whatever questions are still unanswered about the events of that day, it is at least clear that a strategy developed in response to previous fire-fighting experience requires substantial revision. The inferno of Black Saturday was unprecedented, but that does not mean it will remain unique. Indeed, it is already anticipated that it may not be.
On the Monday after Black Saturday, The Age commented: ''Australians are no strangers to natural disaster. Each time an event of the magnitude of the weekend's fires occurs, however, it is as though we are discovering all over again how harsh and threatening life in this land can be.'' Victorians must not let Black Saturday's lessons go unlearnt.