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Community Bushfire Shelters - Considerations Outside the Square

This article was originally sent to me on 5 July 09. Apologies to Joan for the delay in publishing - JS

Counsel assisting the Royal Commission into the 2009 bushfires are reported to have advocated the 'reinstatement' of community bushfire shelters.

Communities have never had bushfire shelters to reinstate.

Previous so-called 'community refuges' were not purpose-built bushfire shelters, and most were no safer than a house or any other building. Many were potential death traps. They were buildings with raised, rubbish-littered sub-floors, holiday camps consisting of small, separated timber huts surrounded by metre-high grass, car parks and football grounds reached by narrow, bush-lined tracks.

While a well constructed shelter may provide safety for those who are in it, this is not the
only consideration.

What cannot be assured is:

  • that outlying evacuees will reach them safely
  • that shelters will be open to receive evacuees early on each day of bushfire danger.
  • that any town can forecast whether it will actually be threatened, and therefore need to have its community shelter open.
  • that community shelters used for other purposes on normal days (as they must be for economy) will be able, on any and every day of bushfire danger, to convert their normal activities at short notice, and make ready to receive evacuees. (Would they eject their usual occupants?)
  • that those working in community shelters used for other purposes know of their bushfire purpose? The North Warrandyte Community Centre was typical of these (1991). Though it exhibited an `Emergency Refuge' sign, when evacuees from a bushfire arrived at its door, neither the fire brigade nor the Centre's committee had known it was a general evacuation refuge. Staff did not know whom to contact or what procedures to follow. (See Community safe refuges, Chapter 12, The Complete Bushfire Safety Book.)
  • that community shelters in tourist towns will be large enough to accommodate the townspeople plus tourists. (If these became overcrowded, would late evacuees be rejected?)
  • that if community refuges are redesignated, and if they are made safe, but seldom need to be used as bushfire shelters, their purpose will not fall into a limbo of bureaucractic and community apathy. As has happened with the wonderful, purpose- built bushfire shelters constructed at an average cost of $1/4 million in 1989 at schools in the Dandenong Ranges.

Two other big aspects for consideration:

  • the use of community and/or family bushfire shelters was originally intended only forchildren, the frail and aged. Able-bodied persons were expected to learn how to defend their homes, or shelter in them, in a safe manner
  • unattended homes (of evacuees and other absentees), have the highest incidence of destruction.

The more people dependent on shelters, the more homes left unattended to be destroyed. As each burning house send off embers to ignite other houses the rebuilding costs for a shelter-dependent society will be astronomical - annually.

Isn't it cheaper and better all round to teach individual and community safety? In schools, workplaces, clubs, migrant centres …?

Isn't it cheaper and better all round for grants and low interest loans to be made available to low income residents of bushfire prone areas before the bushfire season, to help them prepare their homes for bushfire safety?

Isn't it cheaper and better all round for specific funding to be provided to municipal councils to help less able householders put their properties in a safe state before summer?

The more households who prepare their homes, grounds and prepare themselves properly in the knowledge of bushfire defence and survival, the less places will be needed in refuges and the more homes will survive for well founded evacuees to return to.

© Joan WebsterAuthor of The Complete Bushfire Safety Book (Random House 2000) andEssential Bushfire Safety Tips (CSIRO 2008)

See also: "How misconceptions about bushfire bunkers may cost lives" of 21 Jun 09, and "Fire bunkers could have helped in the Victorian fires" of 10 Feb 09.


Given the inherent risks of the Australian Eucalypt landscape, surely the concept 'Complete Bushfire Safety' can only be an ideal, less so when state planning legislation allows houses to be built in high bushfire prone areas, and at the same time that same state government under-resources its bushfire management.

Bushfire Management should not descend to one of desperate wildfire fighting with inadequate resources. Any wonder, bush residents are considering personal last ditch defences. But is this last ditch focus where our prime bushfire management strategy and resources should go? Once we start focusing on bunkers, aren't we being defeatist by assuming that all the lead up causes of bushfire cannot be dealt with? Thinking outside the square is one problem solving approach. People that build in bushfire prone areas could always not. That would be thinking outside the square.

But perhaps a better approach to protecting Victorians from the risks of bushfire (the problem defined) is the approach of Root Cause Analysis (RCA). This problem solving approach recognises that there is usually more than one potential root cause for any given problem. It looks at investigating the known causal relationships between the root causes and the defined problem. Significantly, RCA involves identifying which causes if removed or changed will prevent recurrence. Recommendations are implemented and tested.

If bunkers are to be one of the recommendations, then the Victorian government ought to commission research to the organisation best qualified to research and evaluate the design options and merits of considering a bunker strategy. The CSIRO's Co-operative Research Centre [Bushfire CRC] is arguable the best placed. "Co-operative Research Centres (CRC) bring together researchers from universities, CSIRO and other government organisations, and private industry or public sector agencies in long-term collaborative arrangements that support research and development and education activities to achieve real outcomes of national economic and social significance." Under its Bushfire Research Fund, it undertakes research on bushfire research projects.

However, no information can be found about bushfire bunkers on the Bushfire CRC website. Perhaps there should be, but then what government would publicly guarantee any bunker in the event of a bushfire?

Tigerquoll, you said ....."However, no information can be found about bushfire bunkers on the Bushfire CRC website. Perhaps there should be."

I was informed by a gentleman that some time ago, someone then working for the CSIRO went on ABC radio and spoke about research into fire bunkers. Eg: What construction methods were most suitable, how far they should be built from the house (too far and you get lost in heavy smoke or die from exposure to radiant heat), that they should have a ramp into them rather than steps (less likelihood of a harmful fall) and which direction they should face in relation to other structures.

Both this gentleman and myself searched vigorously the CSIRO site, but could find no mention of either the ABC radio story or any related research, although my friend is adamant he heard it there and at the time listened intently. I emailed the CSIRO asking for information about this matter and a reply stated only that "the CSIRO is currently not investigating fire bunkers." The thing they failed to mention is that they did at one time investigate fire bunkers. I had intended to reply and request information on the radio lecture and earlier research into the effectiveness if fire bunkers, but quickly realised that they'd probably deny such an investigation ever took place or of any knowledge of the radio show.

Why would they do this? Possibly because if their findings were made known, people would use their research as a basis for building a fire bunker and if a tragedy occurred as a result of someone dying in one of these bunkers, then they may fear litigation. It's the only explanation I can come up with.

Dear fellow bloggers, i was made of aware of this forum discussion via Google Alerts.
I represent a company called MineARC Systems - for the last 15 years we have been the world's leading supplier of underground refuges (or bunkers) to the mining and tunnelling industries, based in Perth WA.
Our experience and expertise in this field led us naturally to the development of a refuge chamber specifically designed for bush/forrest fires. Our design, together with independant test data and recomendations on the establishment of an offical Australian 'standard' for bushfire chambers/bunkers (as there is for the mining industry), was sent to the Royal Commission a little over a month ago.
At this stage we haven't contacted CSIRO but we agree they may be a suitable organsiation to conduct potential investigations. For further info on MineARC Systems, updates on our progress with the Commission, and to view our offical submission please visit (and head to Latest News/Media and Downloads)
Kind Regards
Ben Johnson

Hello Ben, your comment is encouraging. May I suggest that the Bushfire CRC organisation would seem to be a good place to start towards best practice bushfire bunker solutions.

I note however that the latest report from the Bushfire CRC, 'Victorian 2009 Bushfire Research Response Interim Report (June 2009)' does not mention the word 'bunker' once, which perhaps suggests that the knowledge in this specialised sub-field is still lacking.

So, yes, this suggests a window of opportunity for your specialised organisation to discuss the requirements testing and standard setting with Bushfire CRC. It would sound like an excellent partnership and I would think that governments would be willing to support ongoing research, given the many public calls for this strategy to be seriously explored. All the best and let us know how you go.

Following the tragic February bush fires, I was desperate to build a fire bunker. It was a brief period of 'loss of logical thinking' since this home was originally built 16 years ago with the threat of fire in mind, even to the point of simple metal fire shutters for days of potential fire threat, slab, sprinklers, etc. Up until Feb this year, I knew little about the Victorian Native Vegetation Act and how it applied to my area until I rang my local council's planning department concerning another matter and was told in no uncertain terms that I was not allowed to cut or lop a single tree on my property without first putting in a planning application which would cost $99 (money grab) and if that application didn't involve a building, dam or other necessary improvement, then the application probably wouldn't be allowed if the only purpose was to remove native vegetation. In other words, I could wave goodbye to my $99 and remain surrounded by acres of miserable, stunted re-growth forest. I now fully agree with the above author concerning potential fire bunker money being better directed towards greater fire protection for the home, but am increasingly frustrated by the Victorian Government's unwillingness to consider applying the law to require a buffer zone (for those that want it) around their homes in bush settings.

Now before anybody sees red over my comments and calls me an eco-vandal, let me point out that I love the bush. It's the appeal of the bush, the tranquillity and distance that brought me out here all those years ago, but there's bush and there's bush. Back in the 1800's and early 1900's, my area was barren of trees. What the old miners hadn't cut down, the local wood cutters had in their quest to keep local homes in the Ballarat and surrounding areas warm in winter. Natural gas and the widespread use of gas for heating didn't occur until the late 60's. Everything called a tree around here at present is the result of overwhelming regrowth. The Eucalypt has a cunning defence against other competing species. The rotting leaves of the Eucalypt release a 'poison' that effectively prevents many other species from encroaching on it's territory. It's why veggies gardens won't grow well near Eucalyptus. The regrowth is so prolific that the trees themselves compete for sunlight which results in acres of stunted and useless native vegetation that I refer to as "woody weeds." Were I allowed to thin them, many of those trees would grow to become majestic specimens, but sadly, under current legislation, they'll be left to struggle, fall and rot creating even more mess on the forest floor.

Because of current drought conditions, these spindly trees compete with each other for water, which is lacking to the degree that the trees become stressed and dump tons of leaves and fine fuel around my home each year and as I get older, I struggle to clean up the massive amounts of debris that collects and find a place to dispose of it. As the author asks "Isn't it cheaper and better all round for specific funding to be provided to municipal councils to help less able householders put their properties in a safe state before summer?" The answer is yes, but wouldn't it be cheaper again to allow those occupying bush properties to thin the bush which in turn would allow landowners to better keep the area clean? The Government is only too willing to pander to the developers who open up these vast areas of bushland to housing estates, but they're not so willing to provide money to help clean up the debris around such areas. Money flows only one way where Governments are concerned and that includes local Government.

Just over five months have passed since those terrible and devastating February fires. For many people living in large cities or well away from the affected areas, life has returned to normal. The loss of life at the time made newspaper selling headlines and glued horrified viewers to the small screen. Unfortunately, many non connected people who bought those newspapers or watched the horror each night on the television news week after tragic week have largely forgotten the plight of those left to pick up the pieces. If this sounds harsh, it's not meant as a condemnation. Life is life and for some who were not affected at a personal level, it quickly returns to the mundane. For those who suffered horrendous loss of life , pets, animals and property, my heart goes out to you. You'll never fully recover from that terrible and unimaginable ordeal. You've suffered the worst that could be imagined, yet there is another group of people who continue to suffer, albeit not as badly. It's those who continue to live in bush settings hoping in vein that someone in Government will have the foresight and common sense to revisit the Native Vegetation Act and change it so that those whom the fire missed this time don't have to face the devastation that occurred earlier this year when the next blast of hot summer wind breathes down their necks. My biggest fear is that this issue won't be address by the Royal Commission, or if it is, then it's recommendations will go the same way as have past Royal Commissions into loss of life during bush fire events. I'm not a praying person, but this is one time I pray that I'll be proven wrong.