Inside Story

The disturbing logic of “Stay or Go”

The experts driving Australia’s bushfire policies won’t acknowledge that different forests produce different fires

Tom Griffiths 22 November 2012 5117 words

A unique community: regrowth at Steels Creek in Victoria several months after Black Saturday. Tom Griffiths

THE most shocking fact about Black Saturday 2009 is that people died where they thought they were safest, where they were told they would be safest. Of the 173 people killed, two-thirds died in their own homes. Of those, a quarter died sheltering in the bath. There were relatively few injuries: the destruction was total, and the following day brought an awful stillness and silence.

The royal commission into the Black Saturday fires applied much critical scrutiny to the “Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early” policy, generally known as “Stay or Go.” It was a policy often distilled in the official mantra, “People save houses. Houses save people.” The Age journalist who reported the royal commission, Karen Kissane, declared this policy “the final victim of Black Saturday.”

In the week after Black Saturday I argued in Inside Story and the Age that the Stay or Go policy was a death sentence in Victoria’s mountain communities on a forty-something-degree day of high winds after a prolonged heatwave and a long drought. Although the policy has guided people well in most areas of Australia and has demonstrably saved lives and homes, it led people who live in that distinctively deadly fire region to believe that they could defend an ordinary home in the face of an unimaginable force.

By enshrining the idea that a home is defendable in any circumstances, Stay or Go also implicitly sanctioned the gradual abandonment of community fire refuges over recent decades. The fire refuge dugout, which developed in the era of bush sawmilling in the early twentieth century, was a distinctive cultural response to the history of fire in the tall Victorian forests. Few dugouts were built in other forest regions of Australia, but those that did exist in these Victorian ranges saved dozens of lives in the fires of Black Friday 1939. It seems that they might now be making a comeback. Some of the people who lost homes on Black Saturday have decided to rebuild with fire refuges on their properties. The royal commission recommended that community refuges be designated in high-risk areas and, in October 2011, the decision to build the state’s first official fire refuge in the region was announced.

It also now seems clear that the Stay or Go policy underpinned the lack of warnings issued by authorities to local residents about the movement of the fire front. The royal commission rightly gave sustained attention to the failure of warning systems on Black Saturday. It is one of the most haunting aspects of the tragedy – the weird official paralysis which meant that warnings weren’t given to communities known to be in the path of the firestorm. In one case an accurate warning was not issued by the Kilmore Incident Control Centre, or ICC, because the fax machine was not operating. It was not uploaded to the CFA website either. Specific warnings were drafted and ready to be sent out several hours before deaths occurred. Kevin Tolhurst’s fire-mapping team in the Integrated Emergency Control Centre produced predictive maps of the fire before 1 pm, but they were not issued. At about 2.40 pm on Black Saturday, the deputy incident controller at Kangaroo Ground, Rocky Barca, predicted that the fire would reach Kinglake, Kinglake West, Strathewen, St Andrews, Steels Creek, Flowerdale, Humevale and surrounding towns and areas. But the message was not sent because Kangaroo Ground was not the designated ICC for the fire.

We have to analyse this paralysis; not just its surface manifestations, but also its culture. The most senior authorities knew the power and path of the fire, although those in the new Integrated Emergency Coordination Centre in Melbourne were surprisingly insulated from the detail. Staff in the Kilmore and Kangaroo Ground ICCs also knew where the fire was heading. But people in the region, people directly in the path of the firestorm who were relying on their radios, TVs and internet to keep them informed, did not know. Power company SP AusNet was warned that its assets were under threat at Kinglake but residents of the town were told nothing.

In an article in the Monthly in July 2009, Robert Manne, who survived the fire in Cottles Bridge because of “a mere fluke of wind,” analysed the evidence so far presented to the royal commission in an attempt to understand why so few warnings were issued by authorities on the day. He was perplexed and angry that people in the path of the fire were not given the benefit of the latest information about the fire front. He and his wife were ready to leave should they learn that the fire was coming their way. They followed the news of the Kilmore East fire and heard that Wandong had come under attack. They knew that this meant that the fire had jumped the Hume Highway and, worryingly, had reached the dense, tall forests of Mount Disappointment. Then they heard nothing more – other than, about 5 pm, “an unearthly roar” which they later thought may have been the firestorm descending on St Andrews, six kilometres to their north. Soon afterwards, the wind changed. They were astonished that, in an age when “people across the globe learn within minutes if a plane crashes or a volcano erupts,” they were left for ten hours knowing “nothing whatever about a monster fire a few kilometres away.”

While residents remained uninformed during the afternoon, roadblocks were put in place in some of the threatened areas. In several reported cases, locals were allowed through only if they were returning to their homes. As Manne reported, police ordered several residents to return to their homes in Pine Ridge Road in Kinglake West where they perished shortly afterwards. Evacuation was being discouraged and returning home was being facilitated, even in some cases demanded. Threat warnings were being suppressed by the bureaucracy.

I THINK there is a system here – a logic – that we need to recognise. It is connected to the Stay or Go policy. As sinister as all these actions seem, they were consistent with a fear of late evacuations and a faith in the safety of the home. How did such a policy evolve and become so strong by 2009?

There had been intimations of the policy as early as the late 1960s. Foresters Alan McArthur and Phil Cheney moved towards it in their report on the Hobart 1967 fire (although it was not remarked that half the “civilian” deaths occurred in or near homes). Then, in 1969, Australians were shocked when seventeen people died at Lara, between Melbourne and Geelong, in or escaping from their cars as a grassfire swept across a major highway surrounded by open paddocks. Travelling through a fire was clearly perilous, even in modern cars and on a broad, multi-lane highway.

But it was the Ash Wednesday firestorm of 1983 that prompted a clear change of policy. Ash Wednesday, which was like Black Friday in intensity if not in range, confronted the modern firefighting community with the limits of its capacity and technology. It also brought tragedy. Seventeen firefighters died that day, most of them next to their well-equipped tankers on a forest road in Upper Beaconsfield when the wind changed and the firestorm swept over them. The experience forced changes in firefighting strategies and philosophies. How to save firefighters from sacrificing themselves? How to get the community more engaged and better informed? The Stay or Go policy, which had been developing quietly since 1967 and evolved from these good questions, began to be articulated more clearly from 1983.

Ash Wednesday initiated a sensible search for “shared responsibility” and “community self-reliance” in firefighting. People had been reminded that some firestorms cannot be stopped or even hindered, even by the most sophisticated of firefighting forces. That day, the Country Fire Authority observed, “normal fire prevention had little effect… on the forward spread of the fire.” It was also apparent that during such an event, the CFA would not be able to offer protection to every home – that homeowners should not expect firefighting assistance and would need to make their own decisions and preparations. Fire expert David Packham, an early advocate of Stay or Go, survived the Ash Wednesday fire by successfully defending his own home at Upper Beaconsfield. It was a close call, but seemed to confirm the proposition that people were in less danger staying put than evacuating late, especially with the tragic example of superbly equipped and trained firefighters caught on the road nearby. This was the crux of the policy: that it was far safer for citizens to be in their own homes, prepared and ready to fight, than it was to be on the roads.

That same year, 1983, Packham spoke often of his experience, arguing strongly that, because radiation was such a killer, “The safest place in a bushfire is inside a building!” He added that “the very best way to make sure a house does not burn down in a bushfire is to have somebody in it!” The philosophy that “People save houses. Houses save people” was beginning to crystallise. Since radiant heat was a major killer and houses were most at risk from ember attack, the partnership made sense. The policy was founded on an assumption that a fire front takes only minutes to pass, a belief that would be challenged by many accounts of Black Saturday. Packham argued against the “irrational evacuation mentality that is sweeping some of the bureaucracies of this state [Victoria].” Compulsory evacuation in such situations was often part of policy overseas, especially in the United States, and so there was some patriotic pride in the development of a libertarian “Australian approach” of community self-reliance. These feelings encouraged the aspiration to articulate a national policy rather than a series of local responses.

Ash Wednesday 1983, like Black Tuesday 1967, confirmed that the new frontier of fire in Australia was the expanding “interface” between the city and the bush. A generation after sawmilling communities were withdrawn from the bush following the recommendations of Judge Stretton in 1939, communities were again being established deep in the forests. This was always going to be a dangerous amalgam, as it had been before, but it was made even more so by the fashion for native gardens that developed strongly from the 1970s. This proliferating zone – spreading along winding bush roads – called for new protective measures and different firefighting philosophies. If a “shared responsibility” was called for, then research was needed into why people die in bushfires.

In 2005, fire scientists John Handmer and Amalie Tibbits reviewed the development of the Stay or Go policy in an article entitled, “Is Staying at Home the Safest Option During Bushfires?” published in Environmental Hazards. Their account shows a strengthening articulation, especially since Ash Wednesday, of faith in the safety of the home – always in contrast to late evacuation. “The clearest lesson from these fires,” Handmer and Tibbits said of Ash Wednesday, “was that late evacuation is dangerous.” It was this kind of thinking that turned the policy focus to the people who stayed and to ways of empowering them. New fires and the enquiries they generated interacted with the policy, generally confirming it. The Sydney fires of 1994, the 2002–03 fires in Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, and the Eyre Peninsula fires in South Australia in 2005 seemed to show that people who stayed and defended their homes had a better chance of survival than late evacuees. On the Eyre Peninsula, eight of the nine deaths occurred in cars. The Dandenong Ranges fires of 1997, in which all three victims died in their homes, seemed to challenge the policy, especially as none of their neighbours perished despite some very late evacuations. But Handmer and Tibbits argued that the policy remained sound because the people who died in 1997 were “adopting a more passive sheltering strategy” rather than actively defending.

This last argument – where contrary evidence was explained away and an “ideal” form of behaviour was assumed – revealed a worrying tendency in the scholarship supporting the Stay or Go policy. We can see it at work in one of the foundation pieces of research on which the policy depended, a 1984 article entitled “Fight or Flee?” by forestry academics Andrew Wilson and Ian Ferguson published in Australian Forestry. Wilson and Ferguson analysed the experience of Mt Macedon residents in the Ash Wednesday fires and concluded that “able-bodied residents who are threatened by a bushfire should remain in their houses. Their chances of survival are excellent, and 90 per cent can expect to save their houses.” The authors were careful to stress that these findings emerged from a fire that was “at, or near, the maximum intensity possible.” This article is constantly cited as proving that, on Ash Wednesday, “twice as many deaths occurred in vehicles or out in the open than inside houses.”

But the death statistics are much more ambiguous than this suggests. The authors argued that, of the forty-six “civilian” deaths in Victoria as a whole on Ash Wednesday, only seven occurred inside houses. But it would be equally valid to say that of the forty-six deaths, around a third died defending their homes (fifteen), a third died evacuating (eighteen), and a third died firefighting in the open (thirteen). Or we could say even more bluntly that five out of the six people who died at Mount Macedon that day were killed in or near their homes. In other words, for such an influential piece of research – research said to establish the relative safety of the home – the evidence is surprisingly inconclusive.

Of those five deaths in or near homes at Mt Macedon, Wilson and Ferguson argued that all the people were over fifty-five, one was disabled and one lived in a steep, forested location exposed to a fully developed crown fire. “In our opinion,” argue the authors in relation to all but the last death, “able-bodied occupants would not have lost their lives.” Therefore: “The results of this survey suggest that evacuation should not be undertaken lightly, if at all.” This is the same argument made of the home deaths in the 1997 Dandenong fires. Even the language of Wilson and Ferguson’s article – “Fight or Flee?” – is heavily weighted towards the more noble, able-bodied defence of the home castle.

Ash Wednesday confirmed the enduring bush wisdom that late evacuation in a bushfire is perilous. It also reminded us that many houses burn down after the fire front has passed. Therefore people can indeed save homes, and many did on Black Saturday. But Ash Wednesday, contrary to accepted opinion, did not prove that homes can save people. And Black Saturday would demolish the mantra completely.

AS THE Stay or Go policy settled in, its architects began to marginalise the evidence against it. It was a utopian ideal, and for the various reasons scientists and managers were keen to explain, real life did not always live up to it. You needed the right kind of people, properly prepared and living in the right kind of houses, to make it come true. And the policy reduced the options available to people to a simple choice, and one which – with its language of “fighting” and “defending,” and the prospect of saving one’s home – was also implicitly presented as a moral decision. Moreover, as the Black Saturday royal commission was to find, “The policy did not tell people they risked death and serious injury if they stayed to defend.” By 2008 the CFA was preparing to address these flaws and contradictions. There was a growing acceptance that, while the policy was “soundly based in evidence,” there were problems of community understanding and “implementation.”

A key retrospective rationale for the Stay or Go policy was the research finding by Katharine Haynes, John Handmer, John McAneney, Amalie Tibbits and Lucinda Coates that “the majority of civilian fatalities in bushfires between the commencement of written records and early 2008 occurred while victims attempted to flee the flames during late evacuation.” This finding, arising from a study published in Environmental Science and Policy in 2010, remained unquestioned by the royal commission, which called its lead author, Dr Haynes, to give evidence. Since it was relied on heavily by the royal commission and by fire and emergency services officers, it is worth scrutinising its use of evidence.

Drawing on coronial records, Haynes and her co-authors investigated the history of Australian “civilian” bushfire fatalities since 1900 and concluded that “late evacuation is the most common activity at the time of death.” But this finding only emerges from the historical data if you place in different categories those people who died inside their homes and those who died outside them while trying to defend them. If you make that distinction, then a large number of deaths are classified as “outside” instead of “defending the home.” This allows “late evacuations” to emerge, by a small margin, as the “most common activity at the time of death” (32 per cent). If you combine the people who died inside houses with those defending the property outside – all of whom it could be said were “staying and defending their home” – then this becomes the major cause of death (35 per cent). And over just the last fifty years, the proportion of deaths of people defending their properties increased to 39 per cent, compared to 29 per cent for those evacuating late.

Everyone accepts that late evacuations are perilous. But even before Black Saturday, it appears that staying and defending could be described as the most dangerous choice a homeowner could make. After Black Saturday, of course, no matter how you read the statistics, that is definitely the case.

Like Handmer and Tibbits, and Wilson and Ferguson, Haynes and her co-authors seek to attribute deaths in houses to the capacity or behaviour of the people inside. The victims “were passively sheltering” or making “meagre and unsuccessful attempts to defend.” They go so far as to argue that not one “prepared” person out of the 552 “civilians” killed in bushfires since 1900 died while defending a “defendable structure” – they either left too late, unwisely fought the fire outside their home, failed to fight when inside, or had a heart attack in the home when defending and therefore died “not directly from the bushfire.” Thus, the utopian policy remains intact, unsullied by messy human behaviour or imperfect human bodies.

Their analysis is also unable to apply any discrimination to the process of evacuation. People sometimes leave late because the threat is much greater than they imagined or their house is about to burn, even if their initial decision was to stay and defend. Haynes and her co-authors categorise them as “late evacuations.” What about the people found burned to death between their home and their car (which was nearby, already packed and had keys in it, thus following David Packham’s sensible advice to those staying and defending to have a means of escape)? When she gave evidence before the royal commission, Haynes appeared to categorise them as “late evacuations” although her published work may register them as “outside the home”; either way, they are again excluded from the definition of “inside defendable property.” Yet the art of defending a home is choosing when to protect yourself inside from the radiant heat and when to go outside to put out flames and embers. Those who evacuated early or “just in time” – or, indeed, too late but miraculously survived – do not register in the data because only deaths are analysed. Successful evacuations are not measured.

It is very surprising that the royal commission was led to believe that this was the only piece of historical research on this issue and that it accepted it without historical scrutiny. Rachel Doyle, the same senior counsel who ruthlessly pursued Christine Nixon about her whereabouts on the night of the fire, seemingly subjected this influential and crucial research to a perfunctory examination. Researching and writing good history is a demanding craft, and understanding the complexity of real life requires careful contextual analysis. It is not easily reduced to statistics. And statistics can be very misleading, especially when your sample size is 552 and you are drawing on events spanning a century.

THIS was the thinking – evident in both the research and management – that underpinned the relentless logic of the Stay or Go policy. Robert Manne was right to ask in July 2009, “Had a decision not to issue warnings in the circumstances of 7 February been taken?” His answer, and I agree with him, was “Yes” – “both a cumbersome bureaucratic structure and a peculiar ideological mindset had worked in combination to prevent the fire and emergency chiefs… from issuing warnings.”

The failure to issue warnings to communities in the path of the firestorm was partly due to error and bureaucratic paralysis, but it was also caused by a conviction that late warnings would precipitate late evacuations, and that people are most vulnerable when in panicked flight. The logic of the policy was that, once the fire is on the move, it is best to keep people at home. Warnings might therefore seem a low priority; they might even seem dangerous.

And it’s not just that people weren’t warned. They were falsely reassured – by the policy; by the advisory literature, which made defending a home in this region on such a day seem a reasonable option; and by the slow, vague and misleading official information that was released about the fire front. In her book, Worst of Days, Karen Kissane observed that at the same time as Stay or Go insisted people take on an adult responsibility for their fates, it “also infantilised them by withholding key information.” Her analysis of “the official mind” is devastating. “While the CFA was arguing over who should run the Kilmore fire,” she writes, “the fire came and went.” In the public messages issued there was “deadly oversight of the bleeding obvious.”

Disturbingly, defensive managerial language has also, at times, undermined local experience and observation. People who live in the Yarra Ranges have developed special words and phrases for the extreme fire behaviour they have repeatedly witnessed. But many fire scholars and professionals forgot the force of fire in tall, wet forests and began to doubt what people said they saw during major fires in Victoria in 1851, 1926, 1939 or 1962, or on Ash Wednesday in 1983. According to this view, the unrehearsed narratives of survivors were actually exaggerated fictions or “myths” that needed to be dispelled by calm professional education, fire science and “the laws of physics.” We are told by the fire professionals that, in the 1944 fires in Victoria, houses did not simply “explode” as people reported, that in the 1967 fire in Tasmania “most accounts of houses exploding can be disregarded,” and that an “extensive survey of houses in the Otway region of Victoria after Ash Wednesday debunked stories of ‘exploding houses.’”

As for Judge Stretton’s famous account of exploding houses in his 1939 royal commission report, John Handmer takes the trouble to interpolate that the judge’s statement is “not supported by quotes.” Stretton didn’t need to quote because the descriptions are there in the 2500 pages of testimony to his royal commission. John Nicholson, a former director of risk management at the CFA, argued in 1994 that “to be effective, this community education process must actively seek to dispel myths about Australian wildfires, for example fire fronts do not move at such phenomenal speeds as sometimes reported in the popular press” – and, of course, he added that houses don’t explode.

If people believe that houses can actually explode – or that fire fronts can move surprisingly quickly – they might not stay in their homes during a firestorm. Handmer argues that, in rural areas, “‘staying’ has always been a likely choice of survival strategy” in bushfire. But the historical experience of the Yarra Valley in the first half of the twentieth century contradicts this. Evacuation was normal. Most people knew their homes weren’t safe, and either escaped or dug desperately into the creek bank. If you were trapped at home, there was an art to abandoning it at the right moment. The acknowledged vulnerability of homes made it essential for those caught in them to get out. And people in those earlier times were more inclined to look out the window, go outside and watch the horizon, sniff the air. In 2009, the internet was a killer. The private, domestic computer screen with its illusion of omniscience and instant communication compounded the vulnerability and isolation of the home.

As recently as 2008, thoughtful fire officers – drawing narrowly on the science of grassfires – argued that there were no such phenomena as “exploding houses” or “firestorms” or “fireballs,” and that these were just the delirious words of people unfamiliar with fire. And they suggested that such untutored and emotive words also falsely implied that “bushfire is something beyond human control.” Nothing shows the psychological blinkers of the Stay or Go policy more powerfully than this professional disparagement of eyewitness accounts of fire in a distinctive forest. Dugouts and “fireballs” were material and verbal evidence of local cultural adaptation, and yet they were abandoned and disparaged by authorities seeking universal solutions and national policies.

Because the research underlying Stay or Go remained unchallenged by the Black Saturday royal commission, the commissioners concluded that “the central tenets” of the policy “remain sound.” But their report did recommend major changes: a need for the policy to recognise variations in the severity of fires resulting from “different topography, fuel loads and weather conditions,” and a need to resist the simplistic “binary approach” of the policy. “Realistic advice is unavoidably more complex and requires subtlety,” they argued, and this would involve providing a greater range of practical options such as community refuges, bushfire shelters and evacuation. Community education would need to include the message that “among the risks of staying to defend are death and serious injury.”

TO LIVE with periodic, recurrent firestorms, I think we need to develop a sensible fatalism. If people are going to live in the heart of the bush in the most dangerous fire region of the planet, then on the worst days a “stay and defend” option is only realistic if your property has a secure fire refuge or bunker. Working out how to build safe, secure and affordable refuges on each vulnerable property is an appropriate challenge to the design and construction industries of the fire continent.

We need more research that is deeply local, ecologically sensitive and historically informed – and is undertaken in collaboration with the communities that live with the threat of bushfire and firestorms. All the political pressures surrounding tragedies like Black Saturday push politicians, fire managers and royal commissioners towards “national” responses. Yet Black Saturday – like Ash Wednesday and Black Friday – was a fire that was characteristic not of Victoria but of a particular region of Victoria. To understand it fully, and to prepare for its certain recurrence, we need to come to terms with the local distinctiveness of fire. A forest is not just any forest, but a unique community of trees with a distinct human history, and a fire is not just any fire, but one of a particular frequency, a particular intensity, a particular range.

What are the distinctive fire regions of Australia, and of Victoria? How will that local distinctiveness shape the behaviour of fire and people? These are simple, key questions, insufficiently studied. The value of such fire scholarship is its attention to local ecology, local history and local community. In every other way fire research should be wide-ranging: it has to be interdisciplinary, drawing on physical, biological and cultural paradigms in one holistic inquiry. But locality – expressed in the physical, geographical, biological, cultural and historical specificity of particular places or regions – should be its cohering focus. This insight has been a tragic legacy of Black Saturday, when people living in a distinctively dangerous fire region died trying to implement a blunt “national” survival plan.

National vision has its place, of course. Accounts of firefighters struggling on the forest floor to link hoses of four incompatible threads provide a simple, vivid example of where a national policy is urgent. But making fire survival plans compatible or universal or national is inappropriate and possibly dangerous. Fire is ruled by weather, ecology, topography and culture, not by jurisdictional boundaries. Yet issues of risk management, bureaucratic response, political responsibility and even charitable benevolence are jurisdictional in application and come to dominate discussion and policy formulation. Fire research needs to work against the grain of this institutional fabric and political momentum. It has to liberate and empower local knowledge and experience where it exists – and create it where it doesn’t.

Fires, like floods, tend to go where they have gone before. Historical research that is also local and ecological is essential for community bushfire awareness and planning. Detailed environmental history – alert to the regional specifics of weather, geography, ecology and human settlement and management – has the capacity to integrate the physical, biological and cultural paradigms of fire scholarship.

Local fire history is also vital to active community memory, commemoration, education and participation. Whereas national institutional solutions can foster passivity in the face of a generalised fire threat, a keener awareness of local ecological and historical distinctiveness can encourage the inhabitants of fire-prone areas to be more actively engaged with managing and surviving their particular environment.

Graeme Bates, captain of the Healesville CFA, reflected after Black Saturday on the value of local memory: “The old guys… it’s handy to talk to them because they know fire behaviour, what it’s going to do coming out of the mountains, how the winds react in the valleys and all that. They can tell you some good old stories of where it burnt and how it burnt and how quick it burnt, so you never forget that because it usually repeats itself… They’ll say it’s always come down there… and across there… and over that mountain… and that’s actually what it did this time.”

In 2009, a National Day of Mourning was announced to mark the anniversary of Black Saturday. I hope that this significant commemorative and reflective ritual will, in the next few years, evolve into a different kind of annual event to be held on a different date. There are now many fire deaths to mourn and many different fire days to remember in Australia, particularly in Victoria – and there will be more. We need a National Fire Day that commemorates them all but also enables Australians to think and plan constructively about fire. A public holiday in the late spring could be both commemorative and practical. It would be a day to remember the peculiar power of fire, both positive and threatening, in your particular region – and a day to anticipate the coming summer and prepare for it. •