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Warrandyte's fire danger

Inadequate fire plans and a hazardous road system pose a major problem for residents and visitors in Warrandyte if a bushfire were to hit the riverside town. Iain Gillespie reports.

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Thousands of people flock to Warrandyte on hot weekends to swim in the Yarra and soak up its scenery and historic attractions, unaware that if a fire approaches they could suddenly find themselves in one of Australia's most dangerous places.

Local community leaders and CFA volunteers describe the town as a fire trap and tragedy waiting to happen, and their warning carries important messages to other bushfire prone areas as they brace for a perilous summer ahead.

Warrandyte is one of 52 high fire risk locations in Victoria, and a local survey has found a mystifying level of complacency among its residents - as if the lessons of Black Saturday, February 7, 2009, have faded. The risk of another terrible death toll has risen as a result. Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley says the results echo similar studies in other states, including ones by the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre in NSW and Tasmania, which indicate that only about 40 per cent of residents in fire prone areas across the nation have a well-constructed fire plan.

Concerned: Dick Davies worries ab out the potentially lethal consequences of a bushfire in Warrandyte.

Concerned: Dick Davies worries about the potentially lethal consequences of a bushfire in Warrandyte. Photo: Joe Armao

Dick Davies, president of the Warrandyte Community Association, says only 23 per cent of residents bothered to respond to a survey on local fire planning. He blames ignorance and denial in a community that has not directly experienced a bushfire in decades.

''Of those who did respond, more than 80 per cent believed bushfire would threaten them in the next few years, yet only 8 per cent had a very detailed survival plan,'' he says.

''About 60 per cent claimed to have some sort of plan, but many people have no idea what to do if something unexpected happens.''

Warrandyte nestles in thickly forested hills about 45 minutes north-west of Melbourne, in almost the centre of a 20-square kilometre zone shown on CFA maps as an area of extreme fire risk. From a steep hill above the Yarra, Davies looks down towards the narrow bridge and roundabout that is the town's only access to the other side of the river. It's just after 4pm, the traffic is building, and he uses a word that haunts local fire-safety campaigners: ''gridlock''.

''On Black Saturday the firestorm was only about 15 minutes away from here when the wind suddenly changed and drove it towards Kinglake instead,'' he says. ''Most people in Warrandyte weren't even aware it was coming.''

Davies says that during an emergency training exercise held last year on a quiet Sunday afternoon it took 40 minutes for the fire tanker in North Warrandyte to cross the river and reach the far end of town about 3 kilometres away.

''Gridlock regularly occurs in the mornings with kids being taken to school and people going to work, as well as in the afternoons when they are coming home,'' he says. ''It's not hard to imagine what will happen when a fire comes.''

Unlike most residents, some locals know exactly what could happen, because they were in the midst of the deadliest bushfire in Victoria's history as it swept towards Warrandyte on Black Saturday.

Rohan Thornton lives on the northern side of the river, in a twisting tangle of narrow bush-lined roads - many little more than dead-end tracks - that lead to the homes of North Warrandyte's 3000 or so residents. Most of the houses seem almost engulfed by trees. ''Local police estimate that in a fire situation it could take up to 12 hours for cars to cross the Warrandyte bridge,'' he says.

A hopeless gridlock like that would trap frightened families trying to escape south across the river, but Thornton's own nightmarish experience on Black Saturday illustrates why they might not even make it that far. As first lieutenant in the local fire brigade, he commanded a tanker sent to fight the fire at St Andrews, 18 kilometres to the north.

''There were residents coming out of the flames in fire-damaged cars yelling about relatives trapped in houses,'' he says.

When the wind changed, Thornton and his four-man crew tried to escape the inferno by riding the fire front towards Kinglake.

They passed the dead body of a motorcyclist and fought their way over and around fallen trees and powerlines while the firestorm kept pace with their vehicle, blasting it with glowing red heat.

''It was surreal,'' he says. ''We could see five metres ahead but could hardly see the road, so we tried to follow the white line at the side.

''The ember attack was ferocious and the noise was deafening. It felt like we were under gunfire attack.''

On top of the mountain at Kinglake, the road was littered with vehicles that had failed to escape the fire. The crew was forced to push the burnt cars aside and they later became hopelessly lost in dense smoke.

The tanker's brakes and protective sprinkling system had broken down and its occupants had difficulty breathing. They finally crashed into a ditch, where a CFA truck responding to their earlier mayday call found them alive, but unconscious.

Thornton, who suffered a fractured spine in the incident, now works as a CFA community education officer to make residents understand that their only guarantee of safety is to leave town the night before an extreme or code red fire day is forecast.

He is frustrated the message isn't getting through and fears those planning to evacuate only if a bushfire is on its way could be signing their death warrants.

''Given the massive wildfire risk here, I'm bewildered as to why residents aren't taking the process of fire planning a lot more seriously,'' he says.

''We're overdue for a major fire, there's a lot of residents, a lot of issues in terms of road access, and people's lack of planning is a major factor. The roads would be the worst place to be, and it's hard to see a tragedy being averted with all those factors in play.''

Former Nillumbik mayor Warwick Leeson, deputy chairman of the Be Ready Warrandyte fire education campaign, warns the fire trap could worsen, and points to recent planning amendments that could double the population in local green-wedge areas.

The amendments he describes seem to fly in the face of a Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission recommendation that planning laws should adopt the clear objective of substantially restricting development in areas of highest bushfire risk.

''Given the apparent apathy and lack of fire preparedness among residents, I can't imagine under what circumstances there wouldn't be a tragedy if a severe fire came towards Warrandyte tomorrow, even with the current population,'' Leeson says.

Warrandyte's restricted infrastructure means traffic congestion can compare with the CBD at its worst, and vehicles bank up as far as two kilometres from the town in peak hours.

A search for clues to the apparent apathy of Warrandyte residents leads to a building off the main street, where clinical psychotherapist Gela de Brugiere runs her practice. The windows overlook scenic parkland where families with children and dogs go for sunny walks along the river.

''Warrandyte is a friendly, creative and caring community,'' she says. ''Residents here are no more or less complacent than people anywhere else, but denial is a common coping strategy in human beings - so is a belief that there's safety in numbers.

''A bushfire is so frightening, the idea of losing your home, all your possessions and the lifestyle you love - plus the thought of having to leave and working out what to do and where to go - can be so overwhelming, that in the end it all goes into the too hard basket and people adopt the comforting idea that it's not going to happen to me.''

Lapsley says fire planning complacency is not limited to Warrandyte. ''Statistics across Australia show that up to 60 per cent of people do not have a well-constructed plan,'' he says.

''Complacency is an interesting word; you have to ask what it means in different scenarios, but there is generic information to say we have up to 60 per cent of communities complacent in the area of bushfire.''

A list of Victoria's 52 high bushfire risk locations can be found here.