Flames spark deadly fight-or-flight decisions in Australia

February 9th, 2009 - 1:57 pm ICT by IANS  

Sydney, Feb 9 (DPA) Kinglake was a picture-perfect high-country town 100 km north-east of Melbourne that was home to 600 people. On Saturday a forest fire barrelled through and now it’s little more than a name on a map.
Survivor Christopher Harvey is convinced that “there was no chance of fighting or taking care of this fire”. One minute the crimson ball of flame was on the ridge above the town, the next it was in their midst.

John Handmer, a professor and a safety expert at Melbourne’s RMIT university, agrees. “Saturday was the worst fire day in recorded history,” he said. “A day like that can overwhelm all our preparations.”

Forest fires happen every Southern Hemisphere summer in Australia. The advice up until now is that it’s best to leave early or stay and fight the fire.

With the death toll 128, conventional wisdom is being questioned by Victoria state Premier John Brumby. He wants a review in light of the loss of life and property.

Bob Rogers, the deputy fire commissioner in New South Wales, said all the research shows that fight is better than flight.

“If you stay, and you don’t panic, a fire will pass over a property very quickly and you are very likely to survive it,” he said. “If you leave it too late, then try and run, your chances are much reduced.”

And so it was in Kinglake. The road leading out of town bears witness to what happens when escape is left too late and smoke reduces visibility. Cars, some with charred bodies inside, are rammed into each other or into trees.

Handmer and Rogers agree that timing is critical and that those who dither or who are without a plan are often lost. Youth and fitness also figure.

Bill and Faye Walker, an elderly couple with a wheelchair-bound son of 53, were seemingly ill-prepared to fight and left their flight until it was too late. They perished in their house.

Their car was parked out the front, packed up and with the key in the ignition and the dog in the back. It’s still there.

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