“Leave and Live”

16 February 2015

There is a fundamental truth about bushfire. If you are caught in the middle of one, there is a risk you will be killed by it. This simple reality underpins the “Leave and Live” message promoted by the Victorian Government this summer.

We all want absolutes and advice that will guarantee us safety and security, especially in an emergency. The only absolute in a bushfire is that if you are not there when it arrives, you cannot be harmed by it. Every other course of action carries a greater or lesser degree of risk.

Some would have Victorians believe that the State has replaced one three-word bushfire policy (“Stay or Go”) with another (“Leave and Live”).

The truth is, of course, that these are not policies but slogans. In fact, “Stay or go” was not even an official slogan, but media shorthand for long standing advice to “prepare, stay and defend or leave early”.

This approach was pilloried in the media after the Black Saturday bushfires and held up to challenge in the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. The critical debate around the advice, however, was the wisdom of telling people to stay and defend their homes when many were simply not prepared for what might unfold.

Acting upon the Royal Commission’s recommendations, successive Victorian governments adopted policy settings that put primacy of life squarely ahead of the defence of property during bushfires.

The advertising tag “Leave and Live” reflects the position outlined in Victoria’s Bushfire Safety Policy Framework. The framework is based on recommendations from the Royal Commission and research findings. It recognises that fire conditions and the way people respond to fire varies, but that leaving early before a fire remains the safest option.

Since the 2009 Victorian bushfires, significant research has been undertaken in Victoria and elsewhere in Australia both into how people plan to respond to the threat of bushfire and into what they actually do. This research was undertaken directly by government and through the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre.

The findings have been remarkably consistent. Only a small proportion of people actually make plans for what to do in the event of a bushfire. An even smaller proportion stick to their plans.

A team led by Professor Jim McLennan from Latrobe University has examined the behaviour of communities in Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales who experienced seven major fire events including and since Black Saturday.

McLennan’s findings are salutary. While 85 per cent of the 1699 people interviewed believed and understood that they were at risk from bushfire, only five per cent had taken the time to write down a plan of action (in Victoria before Black Saturday, the research found just two per cent has a written plan).

In more general terms, while 40 per cent said they would leave when bushfire threatened, 26 per cent would stay, 14 per cent would “wait and see” and 20 per cent – one-in-five – had no plan at all.

Of those who said they would leave a mere 16 per cent had considered how to implement that plan – in terms of having a safe destination, a way of getting there and a “go kit” of basic items to help survive such as water, medications and so on.

The harsh reality of these seven major fire events across Australia is that on average only 2 per cent of people left early – in other words left before a fire started. More alarmingly, the first reaction of many people who remain is to “wait and see” even when a fire has broken out.

After the experience in Victoria of Black Saturday and successive summers of significant bushfire activity since then, such community inertia – especially in areas where fires are known to occur – presents serious community and social challenges.

The focus in government since the 2009 bushfires has been on giving people a range of options, especially in terms of last minute shelter. Victoria has led the way in developing standards around private bushfire shelters and community bushfire refuges – of which there are now three constructed, a fourth to be built this year and more planned in extreme risk areas. Other last resort shelter options such as Neighbourhood Safer Places have been provided in more than 280 high-risk locations.

The idea that the State is avoiding its responsibilities in terms of bushfire prevention and preparedness dishonours the thousands of paid and volunteer firefighters who put their lives on the line every summer. It also ignores the work of land managers who strike a delicate balance between conserving Victoria’s stunning natural environment and burning it out to “fireproof” the state.

Much as it might like to, government cannot simply prevent bad things happening in a complex environment like ours.

Bushfire safety is a shared responsibility. The State is not saying you must leave. It is saying you must take at least some responsibility and decide what you are going to do. If you chose to stay with your property and your community, then you must accept the consequences that may follow.

The “Leave and Live” slogan speaks to those Victorians who are not prepared; who have not experienced fire and don’t think it will happen to them.

There are always options and choices to be made. But they must be made early and must be the safest for you and your family under the circumstances. The longer you leave it, the harder it is. At a point in time it becomes too late to leave and puts you more at risk.

I want people to have the conversation – with family, friends, neighbours, their local fire brigade – about what they are going to do when a bushfire threatens and how they should do it. That conversation needs to occur regularly and long before the flames are licking at the end of the street. “Leave and Live” is actually the alternative to “wait and see”, which is the circumstance that has historically led to most bushfire deaths as people leave late and are caught on the roads or trapped in homes that cannot be defended.

For many the conversation will lead to the conclusion that leaving is the safest option. That means having somewhere that is safe and practical to go to and the means to get there.

Choosing to stay when fire comes depends on circumstances such as whether a person is physically and emotionally capable of surviving the ordeal, whether the building they will stay and actively defend is suitable, whether they have equipment and water up to the job.

Not much has actually changed in this space. Fundamentally, there are still only two options. You either leave or stay. While leaving early is not always easy to do, it remains the safest option. For those who do not have adequate bushfire survival plans, it is the only option.

Yes, leaving early will be inconvenient on many levels for individuals and the broader community. So is dying needlessly.