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Australia fires response inadequate

Officials failed to adequately warn people in the path of deadly wildfires that devastated part of Australia last year, according to an inquiry that recommended sweeping changes to safety measures to prevent future disasters.

Hundreds of blazes whipped into firestorms by powerful winds tore across south-eastern Australia on February 7 last year, killing 173 people, scorching some 1,300 square miles of land and razing 2,000 homes - including entire towns.

Black Saturday, as it became known, was the deadliest wildfire disaster in a country where forest blazes are common every summer and are often killers.

The final report of a more than year-long inquiry into the disaster concluded that while the fires were not preventable, the response by fire, police and emergency services chiefs was lacking.

They "did not demonstrate effective leadership in crucial areas" by ensuring that "prompt and accurate warnings were issued to communities in the path of the fires", inquiry commissioners Bernard Teague, Ron McLeod and Susan Pascoe wrote in their report.

An earlier report of the inquiry found that communications and co-ordination between emergency services officials and firefighters and police on the front lines of the fires was poor and that some communities with fires roaring toward them received little or no warning.

The report, which was handed to the government of Victoria state where the deaths occurred, made 67 recommendations including changing emergency procedures and building codes in fire-prone areas, tightening regulations covering power lines and other factors that can spark blazes, and reviewing evacuation procedures.

Ageing overhead electricity lines were blamed for several of the fires - including the deadliest, which killed about 100 of the victims. One man, former volunteer firefighter Brendan Sokaluk, has been charged with arson causing death in connection with one of the fires, and his trial is pending.

The report said the policy known as stay-or-go - official advice to home owners to either abandon their property early when a fire is approaching or stay put and defend it - was fundamentally sound, though it was shown to have flaws in conditions as intense as those on Black Saturday.

Some critics say the stay-or-go policy should be abolished because many people are unprepared to properly protect their homes from fire and flee too late. Most of those who died in the fire disaster were defending their homes or trapped while trying to leave.


From Belfast Telegraph