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5 Years On – Have We Learned Our Lesson?

Whilst for many of us it seems like yesterday, this weekend we will mark the 5 year anniversary of the devastating Kelmscott/Roleystone bushfire which saw 72 homes completely destroyed and another 32 properties damaged. With hot, dry conditions combined with a very strong easterly wind it created a fast moving, unpredictable bush fire that decimated and changed our community forever, well… for a few months anyways… but has anything really changed?

Today, we walked down some of the hardest hit streets from that day and it’s hard to fathom, it’s almost heart breaking trying to express what we saw.

With the hottest heat wave in years predicted for this coming weekend, and Western Australia already having experienced two deadly massive fires this summer, it seems almost improbable, how many residents today are completely unprepared for when that next disaster strikes.

We saw houses that have been rebuilt, with gutters so full that weeds were growing out of them. We saw another home where the leaves are so compacted in the gutters that tree debris rests on almost half the roof. One ember and we can once again say good bye to that house! We saw another property with firewood staked underneath the house. Many properties have tree limbs overhanging the house, and some houses were rebuilt less than one metre from a large tree.

One of the things that tends to always occur after a bush fire destroys is something called ‘the blame game’. Who is at fault? Why didn’t the fire authorities do more? Why didn’t someone snap their fingers and millions of litres of water magically appear and become available for residents and firefighters? This has been a harsh summer for bushfires. First in the surrounds around Esperance, and then to our friends just further down South Western Highway.

The blame game has once again been at play. It’s been spread throughout many media channels, now with government and private inquiries into what went wrong, who is to blame and who should suffer because of it all.

But how much blame can be pointed at ourselves? How much onus comes back on us to do the right thing? How much responsibility can we as residents in the bush take upon ourselves?

The Parkerville fires two years ago gave us one very clear indication into our modern society. Today, in this day and age, the trend is changing to where nobody wants to take responsibility for themselves. A survey conducted after the fire found that almost half of the residents were just waiting for someone else to tell them what to do. This included residents that could see their neighbours property on fire but because nobody had physically told them what to do, they were going to do ‘nothing’. Because nobody had officially told them to leave, they must be safe even though the entire street was on fire???

It’s sad, but this appears to be a similar mindset for some of those effected by bush fires already this summer. It’s a mindset that has to change, because as I said at the beginning of the season, it’s going to cost lives, and now it has. How many more lives have to be lost before we get the message to take some responsibility for our own actions?

In the Esperance fire, we lost four fellow human beings. Three of them were from other countries never having experienced a bush fire before. It’s heart breaking that they succumbed to one of our harshest realities. Leaving when it’s too late is the number one cause of death in Australian bushfires. Please understand this… leaving at the last minute is the worst decision you can possibly make. The message has always been the same… you either leave early, or you must be ready and able to defend your own property.

For years now, we have been trying to get certain messages across to the public, but it seems that every major bush fire those rules are thrown out the window.

There are many reasons for this but certainly the media has to accept some of the blame. They help with the message at the beginning of every fire season, but when the bush fires occur – the message they portray is completely contrary to what we’ve always said and what they themselves reported earlier in the season. Case in point is with a couple of elderly ladies interviewed from Harvey who the media made out to be heroes as they professed into the camera “we will save the village”. I give them ‘A+’ for a willing attitude and wanting to do more but a big ‘Fail’ for reality. The very next shot on the news program is what really upset me. The next frame showed them in their bathroom with the bathtub full of water and they were saying that they were ready to defend. This sends the wrong message that all it takes to defend the village is a bathtub of water. I can’t imagine, I can’t fathom at all why anyone would want to boil to death. That just seems border line insane, yet that is what the media was portraying at the time.

So at the beginning of the season they help us get the message across to make sure that your home is defendable, but in the thick of it all the only people that they show are the very ones doing the exact wrong thing and this mixed message is what costs lives. There is a lot of blame being pointed in a lot of different directions, but it’s time we all get on the same page.

As Bushfire Ready coordinator for Bedfordale and the surrounding areas, I want to make very clear what is required for you to even consider staying to defend your property during a bushfire. Allow me to preface this by saying that if the fire rating is Extreme or Catastrophic we NEVER suggest you stay and defend your home. However, should the following be true for you, then and only then you might want to consider staying to defend your property, if you are really willing to put your life at risk.

• You must be physically fit and capable of working non-stop, in a low oxygen and highly stressful environment for a minimum of 5 hours.

• You must have your own water source with a minimum of 20,000 litres (for fire danger ratings of Low-Moderate or High), 30,000 litres (for fire danger ratings of Very High) or more than 40,000 litres (for fire danger ratings of Severe). Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you ever rely on mains water to defend your property!!!

• You MUST have a petrol pump, stored fuel and hoses to adequately fight the fire.

• You MUST have adequate PPE (long cotton clothing, no synthetics, goggles, face shield, gloves, proper footwear).

• The rule of thumb is to stay more than double the distance away from the flames. So if flames are 20 metres high, you must stay 40 metres away from the flames or your skin will burn off the bone. Therefore you must ensure that you do not have any exposed skin, and that your firefighting pump and hoses can spray the water some distance away.

• You must have an safe evacuation point in case the fire overcomes you. (below ground swimming pool, nearby stream, etc). Please note: You should never have an above-ground water source as your safe evacuation point because the sheer heat from the fire could boil you to death).

• You must have a house that is in fact defendable (with less than 7 years’ worth of fuel on the ground surrounding it).

Unless all of the above are applicable to your situation, you are not adequately prepared to defend your home and you should evacuate early.

Remember, there are not enough fire trucks to defend every home, nor are there enough emergency personnel to tell you what to do, or when to evacuate. If the fire is approaching, just remember most people die leaving too late.

If you would like to know more about how best to prepare your home, your family or yourself from a bush fire, please feel free to contact us for further information.

Regards,
Daniel Bremer
Bedfordale Volunteer Bushfire Ready Coordinator

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Bedfordale Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade Inc.'s photo.
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