1 Aug 2010

Black Saturday bushfires report urges policy changes

7:54 am on 1 August 2010

The royal commission on Victoria's Black Saturday bushfires has recommended sweeping policy changes to bushfire policy.

A total of 173 people were killed and thousands of homes were destroyed when bushfires swept across Victoria on and around what came to be called Black Saturday - 7 February 2009.

On Saturday the commission handed down 67 recommendations, including a call for the existing stay-or-go policy to be tweaked to allow for a "comprehensive approach to evacuation".

Until Black Saturday, fire authorities had assured people that if they could save their house they could save themselves. Many of those who died were acting on that advice.

The three members of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission - Bernard Teague, Ron McLeod and Susan Pascoe - say the fires severely tested that policy and exposed weaknesses in the way it was applied.

It also calls for a long-term strategy to replace many of Victoria's ageing overhead powerlines with underground cables, a programme to buy back properties high-risk areas, and the establishment of an independent fire commissioner.

Police commissioner's behaviour faulted

The report concludes that the performance of the former Victorian police commissioner, Christine Nixon, on Black Saturday left much to be desired. Ms Nixon has admitted going to dinner at a Melbourne hotel as the fires raged.

Further recommendations include a national bushfire awareness campaign and national school programme detailing the history of Australian bushfires.

The commissioners also want the state government to roughly quadruple the amount of controlled burning it undertakes.

Communities affected by the Black Saturday and Gippsland bushfires are demanding swift action in response to the report but Premier John Brumby says he will consult the community before adopting any of the recommendations.

Emergency services minister Bob Cameron says many changes to systems and procedures have already been made since Black Saturday.