It doesn’t take much to keep a bushfire going in Victoria, Australia’s south-eastern state. In fact, all that’s required is a potent combination of extreme north-westerly winds, soaring temperatures and fuel – supplied in abundance from the national parkland dotted around Melbourne.
Every summer the threat of bushfire is high. And on 7 February 2009, the threat became a horrifying reality. It was precisely the aforementioned cocktail of 45-degree temperatures and winds, which came straight from the scorching desert inland at 50kph, that led to Australia’s biggest natural disaster: The Black Saturday bushfires where 173 people perished in towns scattered around Victoria.
Despite the inevitability of the tragedy, Australia was woefully unprepared. The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (VBRC) was created immediately after the fires to investigate the high death toll. Its final report, released last month, found acute leadership failures (former police chief Christine Nixon was having dinner while the state was ablaze) and a lack of co-ordination between the three main fire-fighting bodies. The report also examined the “stay or go policy”, which encourages residents to leave early or stay and defend their property, and suggested that emphasis should be on leaving early; 113 of those who died, died in their homes.
However, one of the most obvious, yet controversial, findings by the VBRC is the idea that there are some areas in Australia that are simply deemed unliveable. A recommendation from the report for “a retreat and resettlement strategy”, funded by the government, to relocate those living in unacceptably high-risk areas, caused outrage.
Living among nature is not so much the Australian dream but the Australian identity, and very few living in hazardous areas are likely to give that up.
”I have been living here for more than 40 years,” said Jim Child, a resident of Warburton, whose property survived an ember attack in the Black Saturday fires. “I love the place, I love the community and I will live with the risk.”
The Victorian Government has yet to agree to the recommendation. An optional buyout is not only expensive but pointless, as those who don’t take the option will still be living in a hazardous zone. A compulsory buyout is unfeasible and contradicts former prime minster Kevin Rudd’s rousing declaration of rebuilding the damaged communities “brick by brick”.
The difficulty of adopting this approach is the annual hazard every bushfire season, not just for residents, but for fire-fighters and emergency workers.
”We need to think about saving lives, about occupational health and safety,” said John Handmer, director of the Centre for Risk and Community Safety at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. “Otherwise what’s the point of spending millions and millions of dollars on an investigation.”