On Saturday 7 February 2009, 173 people lost their lives and more than 2000 houses were destroyed in bushfires (wildfires) in the Australian State of Victoria. The scale of life and property loss raised fundamental questions about community bushfire safety in Australia, in particular the appropriateness of the ‘Prepare, stay and defend or leave early’ policy. This paper presents findings from research undertaken as part of the Australian Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre’s (CRC) ‘2009 Victorian Bushfires Research Taskforce’. The research examined factors influencing patterns of life and property loss and survival across the fires through mail surveys (n = 1314) of fire affected households. Just over half of the respondents (53%) stayed to defend their homes and properties, whereas the remainder left before or when the fires arrived (43%) or sheltered in a house, structure, vehicle, or outside (4%). Results reveal a survival rate of 77% for houses that were defended by one or more household members, compared to 44% for unattended houses. The paper identifies inadequate planning and preparedness and the tendency for people to wait until they are directly threatened before taking action as major factors leading to late evacuation, failed defence and passive shelter.