The Reality Of Staying Behind To Defend Your Property In A Bushfire
When faced with the threat of fire, to stay and defend property is a dangerous and difficult decision to make -- but one Australians make every year.
"You can't even understand how bad it was," Labertouche resident Craig White said on Monday, describing the fight to defend his home from just one of the 19 significant bushfires burning across Victoria.
"You're helpless, you can't see. There's just heat."
Authorities have confirmed at least nine houses have been lost in eastern Victoria fires, while it's believed the entire township of Tonimbuk has been all but wiped off the map.
Images of homeowners surrounded by smoke with a garden hose in-hand have become a staple of media coverage with every fire event.
But in reality, access to a hose and the guts to stay behind aren't all that's necessary to handle the task.
"If you are going to stay and defend, you need to make sure that you are both physically and mentally capable of defending your house," NSW Rural Fire Service spokesperson James Morris told 10 daily.
“It’s an extremely stressful thing. You’re going to be in a lot of smoke and under a lot of pressure. Some people do say they’re going to stay but then they see the fire and go ‘no, I can’t do it’ and they leave at the last minute.”
It's when this happens that tragedy often strikes, Morris warned.
The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria -- Australia's most devastating fire event -- were a turning point in our understanding of how to approach bushfire management after a number of people who made the decision to stay and defend their properties perished.
The royal commission into the disaster found of the 173 people who lost their lives, "many had made extensive preparations to defend their homes and were actively doing so until shortly before their deaths," counsel assisting the commission Peter Rozen said at the time.
Among the deaths were three men who had made a last-minute attempt to escape the flames. The bodies of a father and son Alfred and Scott Frendo and Martin Schultz were found in each of their cars after a wind change sent the blaze unexpectedly their way.
"You need to leave time to get to your safe place, which also means not having to drive through smoke or going through road closures," Morris said of making the late decision to abandon your property.
According to the Victorian Country Fire Authority, defending a property requires at least two able-bodied, fit and determined adults who understand the process can take hours and sometimes even days of extreme effort.
The kinds of challenges residents will come up against is largely dependent on the type of area they live in.
People who live in rural areas -- most at risk due to surrounding bushland -- tend to have large water tanks, dams with portable pumps and the appropriate hoses available to fight the fire, Morris said.
Urban households, on the other hand, are less likely to have these assets.
"We often tell people if threatened by fire, take things inside like your hose and the connections so that way once the fire has passed, you can go back outside and still put out any smaller fires that pop up," Morris said, noting that more homes are lost to embers than direct fire impact.
"We also tell people to fill up sinks and baths and bins so that way if you lose power, which essentially means you lose water pressure, you still have water in those areas to be able to extinguish spot fires."
Fire authorities across the country work closely with communities to educate people on how to proactively put their homes in the best position for survival and how to develop a comprehensive bushfire survival plan.
But when it comes down to it, every homeowner needs to have a clear understanding of their own capabilities before taking on even less extreme blazes.
"An elderly lady told me she has a super-soaker," Morris recalled.
"She climbed up a ladder and stood at the manhole and put out some embers inside her attic.
"We sort of had a bit of a laugh but she said ‘you know, it works and I had it knowing I couldn't get to the other end [of the attic]'. So you can use your imagination."