Forced school closures put students at bushfire risk

After narrowly escaping the destruction of the Black Saturday fires, some Warrandyte locals now fear children’s lives could be threatened due to forced school closures on high fire risk days.

Warrandyte locals have raised concerns that children could be in more danger due to the closure of schools in bushfire prone areas on days of extreme fire danger.

Schools identified as high risk are directed by the Department of Education to close on days which are declared “code red” by the Bureau of Meteorology.

Fifty-two Victorian schools are located in bushfire-prone areas. However, some Warrandyte students say they are safer at school.

“Both my parents work full time and I don’t drive. If I’m at home on a day that school is closed and there’s a fire how do I get out?” Year 11 Warrandyte High School student, Dylan Brown, said.

The policy could cost lives, and has made the job more difficult for fire fighters, according to North Warrandyte CFA Captain, Rohan Thornton.

“The cynic in me believes the decision was made on a risk management point of view so the Education Department could let go of the risk of looking after those people. As a CFA Captain and a parent I strongly disagree with that decision being made,” Mr Thornton said.

“If you’ve got 600 people in the one spot then it’s controllable, defendable, and it’s something we can coordinate…for us it’s an added complication into an already complicated scenario.”

Although it may be a better situation if the children are at school, it’s difficult for schools to make that decision on behalf of parents, Anderson’s Creek Primary School Principal, Trevor Gibbs, said.

“I think the Department and the Government realise that probably the ones that are best prepared to make the call on the safety of their own child is the parents. Parents would want their kids close to them so that they at least know where they are,” Mr Gibbs said.

“I don’t think you can ever have a situation in an environment like Warrandyte where you can say that we’ll be perfectly safe. It’s just about minimising the risks.”

Mr Gibbs says he would be “worried” if students were left home alone if the suburb was at risk of a fire.  In such cases he would prefer children at school, where the school’s new flame rated facility will be used as a fire refuge upon completion in one month’s time.

A change in wind direction was all that saved Warrandyte from the Black Saturday fires in 2009, which claimed 173 lives.

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Brianna Piazza

Journalist and travel writer.

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