AS MANY as 18 of the 52 Victorian towns listed by the State Government as most at risk of bushfire could be without a designated place of last resort for people trying to escape fires this summer.
The towns include several in the Otway Ranges, while the Dandenongs, covering more than a dozen communities, could have just one or two sites that meet strict safety criteria, but possibly only at the base of the ranges.
The sites, so-called Neighbourhood Safer Places (NSP), are being established in response to Black Saturday as recommended by the Bushfires Royal Commission. They are not refuges and will not guarantee lives. They are meant as places of absolute last call that may offer some protection for people trapped in a fire.
Councils had nominated 157 potential sites throughout the 52 towns, which include some suburbs on Melbourne's fringe.
But Country Fire Authority inspectors knocked out almost half of these because they failed to comply with key criteria: namely, that open-air sites be at least 310 metres clear of forest and other fuel sources or, in the case of structures, 140 metres clear - far enough away to offer protection from killer radiant heat.
Some sites that have passed the CFA test still face hurdles as the Government and local councils sort through issues of road access and legal indemnity. Some sites will also require the co-operation of private land owners before they can be proclaimed.
"It's a really complex issue to put together," said Rob Spence, the chief executive of the Municipal Association of Victoria. "We'd hoped to have done this by now, but as we have gone into it the more complicated it has become."
Legislation governing rules and legal liability for councils establishing the sites is before the Parliament and is expected to be debated next week.
The identity of the towns that have not made the grade has yet to be made public with authorities double-checking for sites, including some that may exist just outside townships. While no sites were originally identified in four of the towns, suggested sites in another 14 did not comply with CFA requirements.
High-risk Otway towns missing the cut include Barongarook, Barwon Downs, Beech Forest, Forrest and Wye River. But sites seem to have been found in bush-bound Aireys Inlet and Lorne, subject to some clearing of vegetation.
The sites will eventually be incorporated in newly drafted municipal Township Protection Plans.
Plans for the 52 high-risk towns, expected to be published today on the CFA's website, will not identify NSPs.
CFA chief executive Mick Bourke said he was still hopeful that sites could be found in some of the towns that have missed out so far. But he said the difficulties identifying them underscored the CFA's message that the sites were not a first option for residents.
"We need to keep putting effort into the search [for the sites], but there will be areas where no Neighbourhood Safer Place exists. And what we're telling people in those areas is to get their front-end planning in place."
The message on days of extreme risk remained the same, he added, which was simply to leave the area as early as possible.
The Government's Emergency Services Legislation Amendment Bill has acknowledged the difficulty of the task, insisting that councils need only use "their best endeavours" to identify and designate sites.
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