Bushfire Evacuation Plans – Enhancing Safety Measures in Rural South Australian Towns

Many facilities have procedures outlined in Australian standards that instruct occupants to evacuate buildings when an emergency occurs. However, evacuation is often complicated by bush fires and exacerbated by road disruptions.

It is therefore essential to identify assembly points and refuges on properties before the bushfire season starts. These should be clearly marked and accessible to occupants.

Identifying the Hazards

A Bushfire Evacuation Plan is a document that outlines the procedures to be followed in the event of a fire. It must identify roles and responsibilities of facility staff, evacuation routes, assembly points and procedures for returning to the facility after an emergency. It must also be based on an assessment of the risk to people in the facility and any potential impacts from surrounding areas.

An effective evacuation system needs to transfer the occupants from the danger zone to safer locations in the shortest possible time. This can be difficult when conditions deteriorate during a bushfire and roads are closed or blocked. An evacuation planning model can help to optimize the evacuation process by identifying the safest routes and times. However, there are still a number of challenges in designing an evacuation system that transfers people during a bushfire.

Some of these challenges include: the difficulty of identifying hazards, perceptions of risk, and the impact on human behaviour. For example, some occupants have high levels of animal attachment and will refuse to evacuate without their pets or enter hazardous areas to ‘rescue’ animals. This is a significant barrier to evacuation and increases the risk of injury and death for both humans and animals7.

Another challenge is the difficulty of establishing a communication network. During a bushfire, it is often impossible to communicate by telephone or internet and even radio is affected by the smoke and heat. This can cause confusion and misunderstandings of instructions. It is therefore important that a communication strategy is included in the Evacuation Plan, and that this is updated periodically during the Bush Fire season.

A further challenge is the difficulty of contacting parents and children who may need to be evacuated from a school or childcare centre. This is particularly important when a parent can’t leave the area because of road closures and should be considered in the Evacuation Plan. Ideally, this should include procedures for contacting families via text messages or email and how the parent will be able to get to the child care or school to collect them.

Identifying the Occupants

The occupants of an at risk development are an important part of the evacuation planning process. It is essential to identify who lives within a facility, what their capabilities and needs are, as well as what facilities they can use to provide shelter during a bush fire emergency. This information will also help in developing evacuation procedures and arrangements to move them to a refuge during a bush fire. The occupants should be provided with a detailed map of the area and the location of the refuges that are available to them as well as their potential routes to those refuges. This will help in identifying the safest route to take and the locations where they should meet up.

It is not always possible or practical to evacuate during a bush fire and it may be necessary for the community to remain at home to protect themselves from the threat of a fire. For this reason many communities have procedures in place to facilitate sheltering, which should be outlined in their Emergency Plan (as outlined by Australian Standards AS3745 Planning for emergencies in facilities and AS4083 Planning for emergencies – Health care facilities). It is important that the occupants of these facilities are aware of what is happening and how to prepare themselves.

The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission highlighted that there is a need to develop better arrangements for emergency evacuations and implementing late evacuation, including processes to account for occupants after they have vacated their premises and an emergency assembly point where people can meet before being given further instructions. This is an important factor in reducing the number of people who become disoriented and lost during a disaster.

Occupants of at risk developments who choose to stay and defend their homes need to be prepared for a prolonged period in the event of an incident. They need to be familiar with their escape routes, have a supply of food and water, make sure they are adequately stocked up on medications, and practice their plan with the whole family. They should also ensure their house is properly defended by creating defensible space, removing vegetation from their yards, and ensuring their home is fire-resistant. It is also recommended that they undertake bush fire awareness training to understand what happens during a bush fire emergency.

Identifying the Refuges

Occupants of rural facilities have a number of additional factors to consider that are not usually present in urban settings. These include the need to evacuate with pets, the impact of an emergency on their work and travel arrangements, and the effect of a bush fire on community services. In order to address these issues, occupants need to be educated and trained to understand what their options are in an evacuation scenario and the actions that they should take. It is also important to develop a plan with the assistance of local community groups and organisations.

Occasional events such as floods and storms can cause damage to buildings that may make them unusable for evacuation purposes, so it is essential to identify alternative refuges. For example, community centres, churches and schools are good places to relocate to. These locations should be considered as a primary option for occupants when developing their plans.

It is also important to establish a local list of vulnerable persons (Vulnerable Persons Registers) who will need special consideration (tailored advice of a recommendation to evacuate) in an emergency situation. This is important as it will allow those persons to be assisted during a crisis, which can otherwise potentially put their lives at risk.

Generally speaking, most facilities will have both Evacuation and Sheltering procedures in their Emergency Plans. It is recommended that these procedures are cross referenced to assist with planning for a bush fire emergency.

Research has found that occupants who are not evacuated during a bushfire are at high risk of injury or death. This is especially true for those with disabilities or impairments. A significant factor that has been identified for delaying evacuating during bush fires is the attachment people have to their animals. Some individuals will refuse to evacuate without their pets, and some will even enter hazardous areas to rescue them.

Using the results of this research, the Country Fire Association has developed an evacuation model that will assist with planning and decision making for those who delay evacuating. This model has been implemented into a series of practical planning guidance notes which are being distributed to community members. These guides are being distributed through the Light Electoral Office, the Pinery Fire Recovery newsletter, and by the press releases of the four local councils with areas affected by the Black Saturday Murrindindi Mill fire.

Identifying the Transportation

In rural South Australia, the state’s government-equipped volunteer fire brigades are known as the Country Fire Service (CFS). Each brigade is divided into groups called Regions. Each region has its own headquarters and a regional coordinator. Regional strike teams are put together for high fire danger days. These team’s consist of one or two trucks from each group in the region, plus a commanding car and often a State Emergency Service vehicle for logistics.

The CFS is responsible for the prevention, control and extinguishment of bushfires, as well as for emergency response in urban areas and assisting other states and territories during large disasters, such as floods. A small number of CFS brigades are also trained to respond to HAZMAT incidents.

Currently, most people evacuate from bushfire affected areas by their own cars and on roads which are likely to be compromised by high fire danger. The risk of evacuation by this method is considerable; 14% of people killed during the Black Saturday bushfires were travelling in vehicles.

Research on the behaviour of householders during a bushfire crisis has identified many factors which influence their decisions. For example, some people will stay and defend their properties despite being warned to leave if they are convinced that the risk is too low, while others may choose to remain because they feel they can save their pets.

Householders are encouraged to make plans for their personal safety and the care of their property by the State and local governments. A range of community bushfire safety education, information and advice programs are offered. However, relatively little information has been published about how well these programs are implemented.

While a majority of residents in the study town had some kind of plan, 30 percent did not. This is much higher than the eight percent reported by Trigg, Smith and Thompson 13 for South Australian communities directly affected by three major bushfires in January 2013 and 19% by McLennan, Patton and Wright 43. This finding suggests that fire agencies need to focus on improving their communication and promotion of bushfire preparedness and planning.