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Australia wildfires report slams warning systems

A royal inquiry reviewing the worst bushfire disaster in Australia's history released a damning interim report on Monday calling for a drastic overhaul of the country's longstanding early warning systems and resident advisories.

'Stay and defend' policy questioned in wake of February infernos in Victoria state

A royal inquiry reviewing the worst bushfire disaster in Australia's history released a damning interim report on Monday calling for a drastic overhaul of the country's longstanding early warning systems and resident advisories.

A firefighter hoses down the last of a blaze in the Gippsland region in southern Australia's Victoria state on Feb. 7, 2009. ((Tim Carrafa/News Ltd/Associated Press))
The report said residents in vulnerable areas need better, faster information to escape quick-moving infernos such as the hundreds of fires that raged across southern Victoria state on Feb. 7, killing 173 people.

"Timely warnings save lives," the report said. "The community expects and depends on detailed and high quality information prior to, during and after bushfires. The community is also entitled to receive timely and accurate bushfire warnings whenever possible, based on the intelligence available to the control agencies."

The report was highly critical of the "stay or go" policy in place to direct residents, saying there has been "insufficient emphasis" on the risks of staying and defending one's home.

"Unquestionably, the safest course is always to leave early," the report said.

"To stay may still be an appropriate option for some, particularly in less dangerous bushfires, but a number of conditions need to be satisfied."

The "stay and defend" policy recognizes that Australia's wildfire services — made up largely of volunteers — lack the resources to protect every house. Homeowners are therefore allowed to try to protect their property.

But the report found that 113 of the victims who died were found inside a building, contradicting the widely-held belief in Australia's fire country that "people save houses, houses save people."

The wildfires destroyed more than 1,800 homes and scorched more than 3,900 square kilometres of farms, forests and towns.

'We didn't hear anything'

Survivors of the tragedy now referred to as "Black Saturday" welcomed the report's findings. 

"You're lost for words when you hear stuff like that, because so many people could've been saved," Helen Petrovski, who lost her home and two dogs to the fires, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"But I guess some people were pretty stubborn too. They didn't want to leave what's theirs and they wanted to fight for it but in the end they went down with it."

Petrovski said it was only her husband's instinct to flee the blaze that saved their lives, as radios and telephones were too congested to get information.

"We didn't hear anything," she said.

Witnesses reported flames leaping 100 metres into the air, generating heat so intense that aluminum road signs melted, the report said.  

The plume of the fires also created a convection effect that generated winds so strong that trees appeared to have been screwed from the ground, it added.

Police suspect at least two of the fires were deliberately set. A 39-year-old man has been charged with 10 counts of arson causing death and a charge of intentionally lighting a bushfire.

With files from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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