Just heed the bushfire warnings and get out

The time for complacency has passed. Holiday makers must heed the warnings and change their travel plans.

Many favourite travel destinations in south-east Australia are unsafe to visit because of catastrophic bushfires. Any lingering doubt about the sense of holidaying in these areas should have been erased by repeated emergency warnings.

Peter Riley (front) and his son-in-law Simon Evvage at their fire damaged Clifton Creek property in Victoria.
Peter Riley (front) and his son-in-law Simon Evvage at their fire damaged Clifton Creek property in Victoria.Credit:Joe Armao

Temperatures are forecast to rise to about 40 degrees over the weekend. If the bush, which is already tinder dry, catches alight, strong winds will fan the flames. As NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance, who is fighting to save his own house, put it: “It is going to be a blast furnace.”

NSW has declared a state of emergency for the entire state over the coming week. In Victoria, the Country Fire Service has urged people to leave East Gippsland and the Upper Murray. Fires are ravaging Kangaroo Island in South Australia and areas close to Hobart in Tasmania.


It seems incredible that after the events of the past few weeks anyone would consider ignoring those warnings. At least nine people have died so far in the bushfires in NSW. One person has died and authorities have grave concerns for as many as 17 others in Victoria.

Families have been forced to take shelter on beaches, watching as flames destroyed their holiday homes. There are thousands of others cut off in towns without power or water or mobile phone coverage, waiting desperately for services to be restored.

Yet authorities are still worried that some people will choose to prolong their holidays or return in the hope of checking out damage to properties or simply ignore the warnings.

Australians pride themselves on their familiarity with the bush and some might think they can handle whatever happens. But as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said, this bushfire season is unique because of the compounding impact of the drought and the extreme weather conditions. The fires are likely to stay active for weeks.

It is too late to take action after the fires have started. Tens of thousands of people are already isolated in coastal communities unable to leave on the burnt out road network. If the roads are re-opened temporarily people should take the chance to leave as quickly as possible.

While firefighters are working around the clock it is irresponsible to expect them to risk their lives needlessly. Cancelling holiday plans is disappointing for families and it may involve forsaking a pre-payment for a holiday rental. But it is a minor annoyance.

The decision to leave or not is harder for local residents and people with holiday homes whose first instinct is to stay to protect their property. The evidence is clear, however, that unless you are physically strong and have a detailed fire plan in place, staying to fight a fire is too dangerous.

Telling people to stay away is, of course, an economic blow to regions which depend on income from tourism during this summer holiday period for their lifeblood. The federal government announced it is making available disaster relief assistance worth $21 million for bushfire victims but more may be needed. Local businesses will be devastated and there will inevitably be confusion and rancour.

Banks may have to exercise forbearance on businesses forced to the wall. Insurance companies must also offer swift assistance to the owners of the hundreds of homes destroyed.

Across the country about one million homes sit within 100 metres of bushland, which is considered most vulnerable to fire damage and loss of life. The Herald urges everyone to accept that with this increased risk comes the responsibility to take greater heed of fire warnings. Putting yourself at risk puts firefighters at risk when they are trying to save people’s lives. When told to leave, you should leave. No home is worth more than a person’s life.

It is time to get serious. If you are anywhere near a fire zone, play it very safe.

The Herald’s editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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