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7 Dec 2019 1:32
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  •   Home > News > International

    Should you stay or should you go during a bushfire?

    In the event of a bushfire many things influence whether people stay or leave. Dr Jim McLennan says some older men, who "aren't going to be pushed around by anybody", can resist calls to leave the fire zone early.

    "You should leave bushfire prone areas the night before or early in the day — do not just wait and see what happens."

    That was the advice from the NSW Rural Fire Service after a state of emergency was declared for NSW and a catastrophic fire warning had been issued for Greater Sydney, Greater Hunter, the Illawarra and Shoalhaven early this week.

    For some residents in bushfire emergencies, these types of warnings are the first time they are faced with making the critical decision of whether to stay or go in the event of a fire.

    Leaving early is the only safe option in the event of a bushfire, according to the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA).

    But for many, other factors cloud the decision making process and sometimes circumstances mean it is simply too late to leave.

    Older men among those likely to stay

    The decision to stay, according Melanie Taylor, a senior lecturer in psychology at Macquarie University, is largely dependent on the type of area someone lives in.

    She said people who lived in more rural areas "tend to have more of an idea of their vulnerabilities, likely have experienced bushfires and have thought about what they would do".

    She said people who decided to stay often had large water tanks, dams with portable pumps and the appropriate hoses available to fight the fire

    Perhaps surprisingly, Dr Taylor's research found pet owners were more likely to stay behind during an emergency.

    "Cats typically might make themselves scarce when there's some sort of risk. People with horses are more likely to want to get them out," she said.

    "Animal owners will tend to consider staying for longer."

    There's also a third cohort according to Dr Jim McLennan, a psychologist working with the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre through La Trobe University.

    "They're often older males who aren't going to be pushed around by anybody," he said.

    "Social psychologists have a term for this called 'psychological reactance'. It's a kind of pushback when you think you're being told what to do."

    He said it's an irrational, but human response.

    "I think most of us have had an experience of someone in authority trying to tell us how to live [our] lives, and we bristle at that," he said.

    Dr McLennan said there was also a fairly well-established phenomenon of elderly people being far more reluctant to leave the home, something he discovered while researching the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

    "[There were] a number of quite tragic cases of elderly people who were living alone, getting phone calls from sons and daughters begging them to leave and sort of saying, 'I'm not sure if I need to leave now' or 'I'll wait until a fire person comes and tells me it's time to leave'," he said.

    "There was a reluctance to actually take the decisive step before leaving."

    This paralysis of indecision can lead to people leaving late when conditions are the most dangerous, or not being able to get out at all.

    People with experience likely to leave

    According to research, people who are more vulnerable make plans to evacuate early.

    "They're particularly likely to make that decision if they have young children, if they're elderly and [they] just accept that there's no way they're up to defending the property," he said.

    Dr McLennan said that extended to people who may have a disability.

    According to the CFA, defending a property requires at least two able-bodied, fit and determined adults who understand the process of fending off a bushfire can take hours, and sometimes even days, of extreme effort.

    Dr McLennan, who has spent time in the field with CFA volunteers, said people who had never experienced a bushfire were likely to underestimate the effort required to defend a property from one.

    "For most of us we see bushfires; we see them on television happening somewhere else to someone else," he said.

    "It takes away the sheer awfulness of it."

    He said people who have encountered a bushfire before were more likely to leave as they had a better understanding of how dangerous it could be.

    Sometimes it is too late to leave

    But some don't always have a choice, they have to stay because the fire is already on top of them.

    Last Friday, it was too late for Lea Thomasen, her partner — who is a volunteer firefighter — and their 14-month-old son to leave their home. They were forced to stay and try to fight off the fire.

    "Everything was lit. It was literally right next to our house," she said.

    The village of Wytaliba, where they live, was largely destroyed by one the 17 emergency-level fires.

    She said the only reason her house was still standing was because the volunteer fire service made it to her property.

    "Our water tank caught fire three times, which they put out. Had they not done that, the house wouldn't be here," she said.

    'Get out and get out early'

    During the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, most people died where they thought they would be safest.

    Of the 173 people killed, two-thirds died in their own homes. Of those, a quarter died sheltering in the bath.

    The subsequent royal commission into the Black Saturday fires applied much critical scrutiny to the 'prepare, stay and defend or leave early' policy, otherwise known as 'stay or go'.

    "The 2009 Black Saturday fires were a game changer," said Dr Jim McLennan.

    "Up to then the general idea was, if you couldn't leave well ahead of the fire, the safest thing was to stay and defend the house."

    He said the messaging has now changed.

    "The emphasis is now on leave early."

    But Dr McLennan said while more people seemed to be hearing that message and deciding to leave early, they were failing to flesh out a detailed and safe escape plan.

    "It's one thing to decide we're not going to stay, it's quite another to say, 'we're going to go to x, and we will use either road z or road y, and our trigger to leave will be when we hear the fire is at a particular place'."


    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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