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Safety expert slams advice to leave at first sign of danger

Joan Webster OAM.

Joan Webster OAM.

Much of the official bushfire safety advice given to residents during emergencies is wrong, according to one of Australia's leading fire safety researchers.

Joan Webster, who has been promoting bushfire safety awareness for nearly 50 years, says that official warnings over-emphasise evacuation despite research showing that flight is often the most dangerous option in a bushfire.

Ms Webster, whose book Essential Bushfire Safety Tips is in its third edition, says that a well-prepared defence of a home in a bushfire is a better option than an unplanned attempt to flee the flames.

During this week's bushfire emergency across NSW the emphasis of official safety warning material was on evacuation of danger areas, but Ms Webster is scathing of such a blanket approach.

"It's wrong and a lot of people in the fire authorities know that it's not right," she told Fairfax Media. "According to the research, far more people have lost their lives trying to evacuate than by staying and sheltering and defending."

The veteran researcher, who undertook the first studies on the stay-or-go dilemma, said that even residents who intended to flee at the first fire warning needed to have a plan.

Ms Webster warned that escape plans needed to be practised, not just written down, because many households would find the official advice impractical when the flames threatened.

"You can't foretell where a fire is going to develop and if you're going to go you should do it the night before, but that's not actually possible for many," she said. "People with young children, people who haven't got any relatives or friends to put them up, people with stock, with animals, they can't just pack and go every time there's a code red day. You'd have to be prepared to come back to nothing too because more vacated houses burn than those where there is someone there to do something about it."

The Victorian-based researcher, who blogs at, said all plans, either for escape or defence, had to be developed with a full knowledge of the dangers and benefits of each option.

"The whole thing is being prepared, knowing what to do and the book has got everything in it so you can know and you can make your informed choices because I've listed the benefits and the dangers of each course of action," she said.

"When you run through what you think is your plan, you might find out that you simply can't do some of the things on your list or you might have forgotten something so you need to practise."

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