Page last updated at 14:15 GMT, Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Should bushfire policies be changed?

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Whittlesea, Victoria

A firefighter walks among the blackened remains of trees following devastating bushfires in Bendigo, Australia, on Tuesday
The scale and ferocity of the fires were unprecedented
Survivors of Australia's bushfires are demanding fundamental changes to the country's emergency response system.

They complain they had little or no warning that terrifying walls of flame were racing towards them.

The breathtaking speed with which the fires accelerated through many parts of Victoria is in large part responsible for the catastrophic loss of life and widespread destruction of property.

The rapid advance of such an unstoppable force took many residents by surprise, leaving them with just a few precious minutes to escape.

Helen Clover from Kinglake, a town in ruins north of Melbourne, said that she was saved by a phone call.

"There was no warning," she told the BBC at an emergency relief centre in Whittlesea.

"The only reason I knew there was a fire was because my son rang me and said: 'The national park's on fire - get out'.

"I feel angry, so angry. People are worse off than us, but we thought we were safe.

We prepared, I guess, for a high tide, a king tide even, but what ran over the state was more like a tsunami
John Brumby, Victoria's premier
"The rangers were going up and down the road, and you're thinking that if there's something going on the ranger would tell you. We heard nothing," she said, as she sat clutching a small dog, surrounded by a few meagre bags of possessions.

Mrs Clover's house has been incinerated and she does plan to rebuild, but she wants there to be more protection.

"I'd like to see a better fire system, a better warning system, alarms or big sirens that they do in the bigger towns so that when there is a fire people can hear the siren and know that there's trouble and get out."

Inquiry and introspection

Victoria's wildfires will be the subject of a judicial inquiry and there will be various inquests, investigations and academic studies that will pore over this unprecedented calamity.

The period of introspection will almost certainly last for many years, given the scale of the tragedy and its effect on a nation's soul.

The disaster in Victoria is one of the most demoralising episodes in modern Australian history. Lessons will have to be learned and the government in Canberra has said that fire safety procedures must be reviewed.

Alerting home-owners by phone is one option that has been suggested.

"I think we really do need to look at our early warning systems," said Attorney-General Robert McClelland.

A woman looks over her burnt-out home in the township of Flowerdale
Local people are asking why officials did not do more to warn them
"In fact, Victoria had been one of the states leading in developing an early warning system, but there are complications of creating a system that doesn't itself overstretch the telephone communication system."

Charities have been working to soothe the bitter frustrations felt by some wildfire survivors.

The Salvation Army's Major Brad Halse has urged them to consider the bigger picture.

"We've been trying to help people see this was an enormously freakish day in terms of the weather, the combination of the extreme heat - the hottest day Victoria's ever had - and extremely strong northerlies," Major Halse told the BBC.

"It was very difficult for any fire authority to prepare for that. These fireballs were moving at enormous speeds [so that] by the time the CFA (Country Fire Authority) had given out advice over the radio it was obsolete."

"We understand why people are angry - it's not the majority but some are - but we're just hoping that they can concentrate on going forward. "

Like many others, Shane Williams lost his home when the fires raged through the hamlet of Flowerdale.

He too told the BBC that he did not receive any official warning that the outbreaks were moving quite so quickly, but was finally alerted by the screams of a distressed neighbour.

A burnt-out property in Steels Creek on February 11, 2009
Thousands are left with just the bags they took with them when they fled
"There was a huge big orange glow coming in the distance and the thunder of the flames just got more intense," he said with tears in his eyes.

"There was a lady who ran down the road screaming: 'Get out now, we're all going to die' and that's when we really took notice and hit the panic button."

Victoria's Premier John Brumby has insisted that in such a savage situation the state's emergency services had done all they could to protect life and property.

"We prepared, I guess, for a high tide, a king tide even, but what ran over the state was more like a tsunami and people who'd had the best fire plans in place, who had been through bushfires before, had never seen anything like what occurred, and I think the plans were right."

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