Australian inquiry slams wildfire failures


June 18, 2010 Updated Aug 17, 2009 at 1:31 PM EDT

An inquiry into Australia's worst wildfires said Monday that the disaster that claimed 173 lives in February showed residents should be encouraged to flee their homes as early as possible.

Entire towns and more than 2,000 homes were razed during the "Black Saturday" disaster on February 7 as record high temperatures, gusting winds and drought-parched countryside created a firestorm in Victoria state.

Royal commissioner Bernard Teague acknowledged that the conditions were unprecedented but said failures exposed during the emergency had to be fixed before the next summer's fire season began within two months.

The retired judge recommended an overhaul of long-standing advice that tells residents either to leave threatened homes early or be prepared to stay and defend their property against the flames until they have passed.

Almost two-thirds of the Black Saturday victims were killed in their homes but Teague said the official policy, known as "stay or go," did not make it clear that those who chose to remain were risking their lives.

"For those who choose to stay and defend, the risks should be spelt out more plainly, including the risk of death," Teague said in his interim report, released Monday.

"People should also be encouraged to recognise that not all houses are defendable in all situations and contingencies need to be considered in case the plan to stay and defend fails."

Teague said the safest option was simply to flee before the fires were a threat and this should be included in revised official advice.

He found communication and warning systems were so inadequate that they could not cope during the disaster, with the emergency phone lines collapsing completely and information hotlines providing outdated advice.

"The warnings that were issued often did not give people a clear understanding of the location and severity of the fire and how they should respond," he said.

He also questioned Country Fire Authority (CFA) head Russell Rees' approach on the day of the fires.

Rees "did not appear to become actively involved in operational issues even when the disastrous consequences of the fires began to emerge," he said.

Rees defended his conduct and said his organisation, made up largely of volunteer firefighters, had performed admirably in difficult conditions.

"I stick with the fact that I did the very best that I could, particularly in the circumstances," he said.

Other recommendations in the report included installing warning sirens and setting up shelters in threatened communities and sending fire updates via mobile phone texts.

The commission did not support giving authorities the power to order compulsory evacuations, saying there was community resistance to the idea.

Teague, whose task is to find out how the blazes raced out of control so quickly and why the death toll was so high, will present his final report in mid-2010.

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