In the aftermath of the recent State Mine Fire in the Blue Mountains, my team at UOW revisited interview participants who were initially interviewed mid-2013 on their preparedness for bushfire. The State Mine Fire provided a unique opportunity to investigate if their preparations withstood the attack.
During one interview, a participant vented his frustration with police orders to evacuate his property, as he was well-prepared to face the fire. He candidly asked me if legally he had to follow such an order when the ‘Prepare. Act. Survive.‘ policy guides people on how to prepare their property in order to stay and defend it. I promised to get back to him with an answer, as I needed to get my facts straight first. I sought the advice of a barrister and academic colleague at the ANU College of Law, Dr Michael Eburn who specialises in emergency law.
Having always been under the impression that Australia does not have a ‘mandatory evacuation’ policy in place, I firstly asked if this is correct? Secondly, I queried if the situation changes when a State of Emergency is declared? Referring to section 37 (as well as 37A-38) of the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989, the Act can ‘…authorise an emergency services officer to direct a person to do any or all of the following: a) to leave any particular premises and to move out of an emergency area or any part of an emergency area…’.
The key seems to be the word ‘direct’. Does ‘direct’ equal ‘mandatory’? Is it ‘advice’ or an ‘order’? Dr Eburn’s insightful and detailed response is available on his blog Australian Emergency Law. It examines the historical debate in Australia surrounding the pros and cons of forced evacuations, draws attention to the updated Bushfires and Community Safety Policy (version 5.0 published by the Australian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council), and explains the legalities when a State of Emergency is declared, before concluding:
“In summary, there is not a policy of mandatory evacuation [in Australia] but the police and emergency services do have the power to order an evacuation if required. Where an order is made under ss 37 or 60L it is a ‘mandatory’ order but during fires such as the State Mine fire, it will, for all practical purposes, be unenforceable.”
You can follow @DrCEriksen on Twitter. Christine also wrote a reflection on the Red October bushfires in its immediate aftermath: ‘Reflections from the fire front and research in its ashen wake’.