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Legal concerns hamper bushfire plan -

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Legal concerns hamper bushfire plan

Simon Lauder reported this story on Tuesday, October 20, 2009 12:40:00

ELEANOR HALL: With the next bushfire season just weeks away, Victorian authorities are struggling
to put in place fire refuges for threatened communities.

The deadly fires earlier this year prompted the State Government to promise that it would provide
neighbourhood refuges in dozens of vulnerable towns.

But the process of establishing the refuges is being disrupted by uncertainty over who will be held
liable if they fail as Simon Lauder reports.

SIMON LAUDER: They used to be called bushfire refuges - often haphazard arrangements for people who
flee a bushfire. But the Royal Commission into Black Saturday bushfires has recommended refuges be
provided more systematically.

Aware that the word 'refuge' can imply protection and safety, the State Government has decided
instead to call them 'neighbourhood safer places'.

It's now working with local councils in 52 at risk towns to have the places ready for the next fire
season, but the State Opposition's local government spokeswoman Jeanette Powell, is concerned about
the lack of progress.

JEANETTE POWELL: Because the Premier has said that these will be in place by the next fire season,
there is an expectation by the community that they will be identified and that they will know where
to go and that that information will be available to them and I just don't believe that will be the
case.

SIMON LAUDER: The biggest problem surrounding the plan to give residents somewhere to go to in a
bushfire is liability - who is responsible when things go wrong.

ROB SPENCE: These are not, you know, oh it looks like it is going to be a bad day, I'll go to the
neighbourhood safer place. These are absolutely places of last resort and there are no guarantees
that you are going to have protection there.

SIMON LAUDER: Rob Spence is the chief executive of the Municipal Association of Victoria, which
represents local councils. Mr Spence is worried people won't realise that a safer place isn't
necessarily safe.

ROB SPENCE: Implement your strategy, get out early. If you are caught out then a neighbourhood
safer place, if there is one in your area, is your last point, your last location to go to.

SIMON LAUDER: And have you any costings or even just some thoughts on the extent of liability
issues should a fire go through one of those places when people are there?

ROB SPENCE: We haven't attempted to estimate it. How big is the neighbourhood safer place? How many
people are in it? You know if you said that the neighbourhood safer place was Gallipoli Park at
Marysville and what was there, 100 and something people in there and if those people had of been
killed or badly burned.

And if that location actually met the criteria, it would give you some sense of you know, the
potential exposure.

SIMON LAUDER: The State Government is working on legislation to make sure councils aren't liable
for losses at properly maintained neighbourhood safer places.

But Mr Spence says those laws won't be in place soon enough.

ROB SPENCE: Probably won't be in place until sometime in December, mid-December and if we are going
to have neighbourhood safer places in place before then then we want to ensure that we have some
form of protection for councils in the intervening period.

SIMON LAUDER: So what are the potential problems between the beginning of the fire season in a few
weeks and December when those laws take effect?

ROB SPENCE: Well, if we did have an incident when a neighbour safer place was in operation and
someone was injured or was killed for example in them, then we would want to ensure that the
councils had some sort of protection or indemnity.

SIMON LAUDER: Mr Spence says that may involve some extra funding or financial protection and he's
hoping there'll be a solution by the end of this month. But there are still many obstacles to
overcome and a lot of work to do.

The Country Fire Authority is still working on the guidelines which will be used to assess a
potential site for a safer place.

ROB SPENCE: One of these actual neighbourhood safer places, what do they look like, where are they
located, what level of effort is going to be required to maintain them?

So until we have actually got the list, even the preliminary list which I hope we will have in the
next couple of days, then we'll have a sense of what is going to be required from councils to keep
them operational.

SIMON LAUDER: The Victorian Government has confirmed it's working on a way to provide councils with
indemnity, so the safer places can be in place by the mid-November deadline.

ELEANOR HALL: Simon Lauder in Melbourne.