A Ballarat fire brigade has issued an urgent message against urban indifference in the wake of a grass fire that could have destroyed multiple communities.
While visiting and speaking with community members ahead of the summer bushfire season, the volunteer firefighters at the Buninyong-Mt Helen Fire Brigade discovered a shocking trend: that while many residents living on the urban fringe of the city had heeded advice to prepare their properties, a worrying number had not created a detailed fire plan.
According to John McLeod, who has been a member of the brigade for more than a decade and is currently in the Community Education and Safety Coordinator role, at a time when Victoria is experiencing large fire events and longer and hotter bushfire seasons, it is worrying that such a high number of residents are under-prepared for the potential of a significant bushfire event.
With areas of bush, grassland and plantation surrounding residential parts of Ballarat and each year bushfire conditions becoming progressively more severe, the probability of a significant fire occurring in the area - similar to what is occurring in East Gippsland and North East Victoria - is high.
We live in one of the highest fire danger areas in the world and Buninyong-Mt Helen has a large number of properties classified as extreme fire risk. Unfortunately, many of these properties are in residential areas and some residents have a false sense of security.John McLeod
"The only option is for residents to prepare their properties early and have well thought-through and detailed fire plans that include contingencies for a range of situations."
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Mr McLeod said the overwhelming majority of residents had communicated to the brigade that their plan was simply to leave early.
While this is the safest strategy and what the CFA recommends, he said holding the belief you would "leave early" in place of a detailed fire plan was much too limited and leaves individuals and families at risk of being caught in the path of a fire.
"The majority of residents who say they will leave early have not discussed it as a family and haven't agreed upon the trigger point to leave. Nor have they discussed the steps they would need to take so they can leave in sufficient time."
Many residents indicated they would leave if a fire was threatening them directly, but only when they noticed the threat. Often this does not leave enough time to escape.
"The speed and erratic behaviour of a fire is often significantly underestimated, and leaving early means leaving the area before you can see fire or smell smoke," Mr McLeod said.
In some cases fires can move so quickly that it is impossible to flee or flying embers ahead of the main fire front can create spot fires and block the roads.
After the grass fire at Allendale broke out earlier this week, it moved so quickly that many residents did not have a chance to leave. A similar scenario played out after fires ignited at Scotsburn several years ago.
Leaving in the high pressure situation while being under the threat of a bushfire requires many decisions and so it is vital that a bushfire plan is agreed upon by all family members to reduce the risk of delays due to a lack of preparation, which in turn could put lives in danger.
"Plans for bushfire safety must be detailed and comprehensive," Mr McLeod said.
"Residents who don't have agreed strategies on what they will take, what they will do with pets and animals, suitable clothing ready, supplies of water and snacks, agreed multiple escape routes, agreed valuables ready to take, can find themselves panicking, disorganised and running out of time to leave safely."
Many people were killed when they were taken by surprise on Black Saturday, including those who waited for an official warning before activating their plans.
Being in a fire storm is terrifying and disorienting and can lead to panic and poor decision-making.
"Sudden wind changes or erratic conditions on bad fire days can cause fires to come at you from many or all directions and thick smoke can cause low or no visibility. Personal injuries can be caused in the panic to leave," he said.
For many Mt Helen residents the only exit is Geelong Rd but in a state of emergency, it would not take much to create a state of traffic chaos. This could lead to being caught in a vehicle on a road in the midst of a fire.
"Fallen trees, traffic jams or car accidents can block exits from the area, while panicked wildlife and stock on roads can cause accidents."
As such, Mr McLeod said it was vital for residents to not only have a comprehensive fire plan, but one that includes a back-up plan.
CFA Commander Anthony Pearce said it was vital for all residents living on the outskirts of Ballarat, all of which are prone to being impacted by fire, to have a fire plan in place, to listen to warnings and act appropriately.
"Anywhere where residential property is in contact with scrub, open grassland or bushland needs a fire plan," he said.
"We encourage everyone to think about what the risk of fire is around them and to be prepared to take action appropriately."
He said the state was currently in unprecedented fire conditions and during this fire season there had been a significant loss of property and damage in areas that people did have fire plans in place.
"The threat of fire on the landscape in Victoria is very real. This is so in terms of towns like Ballarat in the urban areas as much as in the rural communities."
He reminded people to stay up to date with more than one source of information during an emergency situation, including the Vic Emergency app, radio and social media.
For more information about how to create a fire plan and what to do in a fire, visit the CFA website.
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