This article was originally sent to me on 5 July 09. Apologies to Joan for the delay in publishing - JS Counsel assisting the Royal Commission into the 2009 bushfires are reported to have advocated the 'reinstatement' of community bushfire shelters. Communities have never had bushfire shelters to reinstate. Previous so-called 'community refuges' were not purpose-built bushfire shelters, and most were no safer than a house or any other building. Many were potential death traps. They were buildings with raised, rubbish-littered sub-floors, holiday camps consisting of small, separated timber huts surrounded by metre-high grass, car parks and football grounds reached by narrow, bush-lined tracks. While a well constructed shelter may provide safety for those who are in it, this is not the only consideration. What cannot be assured is:
- that outlying evacuees will reach them safely
- that shelters will be open to receive evacuees early on each day of bushfire danger.
- that any town can forecast whether it will actually be threatened, and therefore need to have its community shelter open.
- that community shelters used for other purposes on normal days (as they must be for economy) will be able, on any and every day of bushfire danger, to convert their normal activities at short notice, and make ready to receive evacuees. (Would they eject their usual occupants?)
- that those working in community shelters used for other purposes know of their bushfire purpose? The North Warrandyte Community Centre was typical of these (1991). Though it exhibited an `Emergency Refuge' sign, when evacuees from a bushfire arrived at its door, neither the fire brigade nor the Centre's committee had known it was a general evacuation refuge. Staff did not know whom to contact or what procedures to follow. (See Community safe refuges, Chapter 12, The Complete Bushfire Safety Book.)
- that community shelters in tourist towns will be large enough to accommodate the townspeople plus tourists. (If these became overcrowded, would late evacuees be rejected?)
- that if community refuges are redesignated, and if they are made safe, but seldom need to be used as bushfire shelters, their purpose will not fall into a limbo of bureaucractic and community apathy. As has happened with the wonderful, purpose- built bushfire shelters constructed at an average cost of $1/4 million in 1989 at schools in the Dandenong Ranges.
- the use of community and/or family bushfire shelters was originally intended only forchildren, the frail and aged. Able-bodied persons were expected to learn how to defend their homes, or shelter in them, in a safe manner
- unattended homes (of evacuees and other absentees), have the highest incidence of destruction.