MEMORIES of past fires haunted local residents as flames and smoke started to threaten their homes earlier this year.
And experience with fires that swept through the Shoalhaven in 2000 and 20001 impacted on the decisions many made to evacuate their homes during bushfires in January, according to a research report released last week.
Typical of the responses from Shoalhaven residents was, “I’ve seen what fires can do. So if in doubt we go, because I’ve seen too many of them and I’ve seen what they can do, and how fast they can come.”
Another said, “A neighbour way down there came up very agitated, because she’s lived through the fire 10 years ago and she was going. She said, ‘You’ve got to get out, you’ve got to get out’ so at that point we were preparing to leave if we needed to, but we weren’t going to get out before.”
Following January’s fires at Coonabarabran, Yass and the Shoalhaven, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service engaged the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) to conduct community based research, focusing on people’s preparation, decision making and actions during the fires.
What the research found was that the vast majority of the Shoalhaven people surveyed had been through fires before, creating heightened awareness and a huge appetite for information as the fire drew ever closer to homes.
People scanned the media and quizzed neighbours in unprecedented numbers during the fire that started west of Wandandian on January 7.
It was contained that night but jumped containment lines at noon the following day amid catastrophic fire conditions, and threatened properties at Jerrawangala which were evacuated.
That night the fire jumped the Princes Highway and headed towards Sussex Inlet.
In the height of the drama some people were evacuated, others chose to remove themselves from the danger area, and others simply refused.
One person told the interviewers, “They told us to evacuate now and go over to the bowling club and I said, ‘I’m not going’ and he said, “Well, you’re going to go’ and I said ‘Okay, okay, I’m going to go’. But I didn’t, I just went around the back of the house and he moved on.”
Others looked to the water as a refuge.
“Our main aim was to head to the beach because , you know, that’s the safest thing you can go in, there’s still a fair bit of sand between the bush and the water, and if need be we could have gone in the water,” one of the Shoalhaven people told interviewers.
Another said, “If we got told we had to go, we were actually going down to the beach. That’s where we were going. But then we got contacted from the Red Cross to say we can meet at the bowling club as an evacuation point.”
While evacuation points were set up, animals created problems.
“Animals are a big issue. A lot of the older folks have got animals and they have nowhere to take them,” one person told the interviewers. “Naturally, they wouldn’t let them inside the clubs so they were outside the clubs with their animals in shocking heat trying to keep them cool.”
The report said problems caring for animals, and indecision about where people should evacuate to, were indicative of a lack of detailed planning for bushfires.
said the research showed the perceived risk of a bushfire was commonly low, despite many areas being high risk.
“Few residents of bushfire-prone areas are actually prepared and ready to leave safely – a majority of people do not have any real appreciation of what a serious bushfire entails, because they are such rare events for any given location,” said Bushfire CRC chief investigator Dr Jim McLennan.
NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the study was important to help all, including the RFS, learn from the experiences of January.
That was certainly the case with one of the Shoalhaven people interviewed in the process, who said, “It’s been a good experience in the sense that it makes you more prepared. We have prepared evacuation plans and now the residents know more about the procedures and everything like that.”
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