It was New Year’s Eve and two fire fronts had merged into one, and it was bearing down on Banksia Village aged care home on the NSW south-coast.
Eighty-residents with complex care needs and high levels of frailty, plus the independent living residents and staff, remained inside as flames approached the front fence of the home.
Residents inside the fire-protected safe zone had tea and cake, as staff and volunteers hosed ember attacks and spot fires outside.
The fires were all around them. So instead of the Rural Fire Service (RFS) being able to defend the property as in their emergency plan, the immediate defence of the property was left to staff.
As the day wore on the threat passed but not without an impact. There were widespread power outages, internet services were out and communications hampered.
And when another fire front came through a few days later, a similar terrifying scenario occurred. But the safety and security of all residents and staff was the ultimate proof.
Banksia Village director, Rosemary Butt, said in a submission to Inside Ageing’s Future Ageing Awards, that their emergency plan to shelter in place followed advice from the Rural Fire Service and the Department of Health.
“Some fences were damaged by the fires but all residents, staff, buildings and infrastructure survived,” she said.
“Without the cooperation and engagement of the RFS staff, Banksia Village staff and community volunteers the outcome could have been quite different.
“All residents were well cared for and felt safe having nothing but praise for staff, volunteers and the RFS.”
As summer temperatures rise and the bushfire threat across southern Australia increases, fire authorities are reminding all operators to have bushfire plans in place.
Victoria’s Country Fire Authority has created online bushfire safety modules for people who work and live in high-risk areas.
The modules cover risk, preparation, safety and survival. People interested in learning more about bushfire safety and bushfire survival planning can complete these modules on the CFA learning platform.
The Country Fire Authority has also highlighted the importance of fire safety for vulnerable community members, noting 44 per cent of people who died in 2009 Black Saturday fires were considered vulnerable.
“It is important that people who live in high fire risk areas have a fire plan,” the Fire Ready Guide for Community Workers said.
“This is especially true for people with a chronic or acute health condition, physical and/or cognitive disability or those of older age.
“This can also be true for people who are socially isolated. These people can be at greatest risk as they can find it difficult to leave their homes and may face significant barriers to attending CFA community meetings and accessing fire safety information.”
The guide said people must have a plan determining under what circumstances they would leave their property, have an emergency bag ready and be aware of their transport options.
Once the immediate fire threat passed at Banksia Village, staff have endorsed their handling of the fire threat.
Ms Butt said their status as a small independent, charitable and not-for-profit aged services provider with 80 high-care residents onsite meant relocation was not a viable option.
“Engagement, collaboration and cooperation with staff and volunteers were key to the plan before, during and after the fire threat had passed,” she said.
“Although 31 December and 4 January were horrific days – and traumatic for some residents – all residents were well cared for and felt safe.
“Continuing to engage and collaborate with the RFS to further refine our sheltering in place plan in light of this recent experience will be a priority in 2020 as extreme weather events are predicted to continue in our region.”