MANDATORY evacuations in the United States had led to chaos on the roads, but US fire chiefs have dismissed consideration of Australia's stay-or-go policy as "irresponsible" following the deaths of 173 people on Black Saturday, the Bushfires Royal Commission has heard.
The evidence came as a Department of Sustainability and Environment deputy incident controller told the commission that the CFA was "a mess" on Black Saturday and that a tussle for control of the Kilmore East fire led to a delay in warnings being issued to Kinglake and surrounds.
In a video-link to the commission, Chicago-based wildfire safety expert Sarah McCaffery said that although mandatory evacuation was the primary policy during wildfires in the US, there was growing interest in adopting other approaches to fire safety, including Australia's stay-or-go policy.
The commission was shown a news article describing the 2007 evacuation of 40,000 people from Ramona, southern California, in which people were trapped in traffic jams for up to five hours. Dr McCaffery said that if the wind had changed thousands could have died.
Dr McCaffery's own interviews with residents in fire-affected areas had also found that some people resented the heavy-handed tactics used to encourage people to leave their properties. This ranged from a signed letter waiving a fire service's legal liability, to asking residents to write their social security numbers on their arms so that authorities could identify them when they found their bodies.
However, she said that Black Saturday had convinced some in the US firefighting community that the stay-or-go policy should not be adopted.
The commission was shown a joint statement by Californian fire chiefs reinforcing their support for early evacuation and stating that "any consideration of the Australian so-called 'Leave Early or Stay and Defend' policy would be irresponsible at this time in light of the tragedy in Australia, as well as California's own experience responding to firestorms". Dr McCaffery said there was great interest in the outcomes of the royal commission and she said it was too soon to conclude that the stay-or-go policy did not work. She suggested a warning system similar to that used for hurricanes in the US might be a way to convey dangerous fire conditions to the public.
Also yesterday, the commission was presented with further evidence of chaotic communications and delayed warnings emanating from the Kilmore and Kangaroo Ground incident control centres on February 7.
Rocky Barca, a DSE deputy incident controller working at Kangaroo Ground that day, said he had done a "snap" analysis of the potential of the Kilmore East fire about 2.40pm and established that communities including Kinglake, Strathewen, St Andrews and Flowerdale were at risk.
He had ordered an alert message be drafted, but because Kangaroo Ground did not yet have control of the fire the message could not be sent. Control for the fire was eventually handed over from the Kilmore incident control centre to Kangaroo Ground about 5am the next day.
The commission was shown a scrawled message from Mr Barca's logbook. It said: "Kinglake needs threat messages ASAP, confusion of response, lack of information and threat messages. CFA in a mess!!"
Mr Barca said that had Kangaroo Ground been given control of the fire earlier, the first priority would have been to alert those communities that might be affected.
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