THE blame game must stop on Saturday and the real debate begin.
In two days the bushfires royal commission will release its report and recommendations into the tragic events of Black Saturday.
Importantly, two issues must be addressed. One needs urgent change, the other faces change for the worse.
The first concerns how our fire services are financed.
At present, both the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and Country Fire Authority are financed by a fire services levy.
This is a levy on all property insurance premiums in Victoria. It is not levied on vehicle insurance. Of course, the major flaw with this system is that only those who insure their properties pay the levy.
And boy do they pay, with the levy doubling the cost of insurance premiums for many, particularly farmers.
So, what happens when an uninsured home owner requires the fire brigade? They arrive, of course, as they would for anyone.
And car owners – who don’t pay a cent – are responsible for about 15 per cent of MFB and 10 per cent of CFA call-outs.
Simply, those who don’t pay the fire services levy get the same treatment as those who do.
The MFB and CFA can charge uninsured property owners for call-outs, but rarely, if ever, do. The CFA didn’t charge uninsured property owners during the Black Saturday fires.
Hopefully the commission will listen to groups such as the Insurance Council of Australia, Municipal Association of Victoria, Victorian Farmers Federation – even the commission’s own lawyers – and fix this crazy system, separating it from insurance premiums.
The second issue is the stay-or-go policy, where it is up to the resident to decide whether they leave before a fire arrives or stay to fight it.
There have been many critics of this policy since Black Saturday but the alternative suggested is frightening.
Last month counsel assisting the commission recommended the stay-or-go policy should be replaced by "voluntary evacuation" overseen by fire incident controllers. The theory is that as a fire approaches, fire controllers would tell those in its path to head for safer ground.
The flaws in this are frighteningly obvious. At what point does the controller decide to send the message?
What if a fire is spotting 15km or more away, as it was on Black Saturday? A fire controller would be powerless in such a situation.
And what of the thousands of cars flooding narrow winding roads of a highly populated hillside region, such as the Dandenongs? The potential death toll would be horrendous.
This system would place too much responsibility on fire controllers, and send the message that people will be told at an appropriate time when to leave their homes. It would breed complacency.
A third party – whose focus must be on fighting the fire – simply cannot decide when people should leave. The only ones who can decide are the residents themselves.
And that decision must be based on whether they have the skills and resources to defend themselves and their homes.
The stay-or-go policy is not perfect, as Black Saturday proved. But it is sure better than the system we could find the commission recommending on Saturday.
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