How well do we know bushfires?

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009 - 5:33am

We all knew it could be a bad weekend. With temperatures in the high 40s and strong northerly winds, any fire that began on the weekend of the 7-8 February had the potential to grow very rapidly, travel fast and quickly threaten communities.

It is too early to fully gauge the impact and casues of these events but we can be sure that the date will be etched in our history as firmly as Black Friday in 1939 and Ash Wednesday in 1983.

We are the Bushfire CRC extend our deepest sympathies to all those affected by these bushfires. With so many lives and properties lost, we are again reminded about how as a community we must better learn how to live with fire.

As awful as the events of these few weeks are, it is sometimes difficult to remember that as a community we are better prepared than we have ever been. We have better technology to fight the fires and better systems to coordinate resources across multiple fires. Communities are better informed, both before the fires arrive and while they are still going, with non-stop media broadcasting and regular community meetings held in local halls. Importantly, there is now a far better coordination of all the state’s emergency services, and other community support agencies. 

However, we have learnt a lot about bushfires but this is often not enough. Despite all the advances in knowledge, we are still losing lives and property, and some residents are still not fully prepared. This is a situation not unique to Australia as recent devastating fires in North America and southern Europe have shown. And as the international experience has proved, simply buying more water-bombing aircraft and other fire fighting resources is not enough.

When bushfires run under such extreme conditions they are almost impossible to put out. So it comes down to having communities that are fully prepared, including mentally and physically, for the impact of a bushfire.

Climate change and drought are altering the nature, ferocity and duration of bushfires and an ageing and declining volunteer population are challenging the way fire agencies are going to be able to manage these events.

These issues are being made worse by the expanding rural-urban edge in our cities and regional towns. The fires on the suburban outskirts of Bendigo and Narre Warren on the Saturday show that we need to rethink our notion of who lives in a bushfire zone and who needs to be educated and prepared.

Our research has consistently shown that fleeing at the last moment is the worst possible option;  this is the where most people have died or been injured.  Sadly, this message does not seem to have been sufficiently heeded this weekend with truly awful consequences in Victoria. History and research both show that in past fires this has not been a safe option and that a properly prepared house that is actively defended is a safe place to be.

Alternatively, many people made the perfectly acceptable decision that their house was not defendable and decided to leave early. They may have lost their home but they kept themselves safe.

These fires show that we still need to know more, especially about:

  • The education of communities that are not getting the fire-safety messages
  • How and why these fires start
  • Why some houses catch fire and others don’t
  • Extreme fire behaviour
  • How we prepare the land and our homes for fire
  • How we better protect essential infrastructure and industry.

The world is watching us over these past few weeks and will continue to do so. We have already been contacted by many colleagues in the US and in Europe who each year also grapple with the same issues as us. They want to know how we are dealing with these mega-fires – fires that seem to defy fire-fighting efforts and quickly threaten communities. The world-leading expertise that we are building in Australia is being combined with that from other countries.

All the research is telling us that a hotter and drier climate in these areas of the world is greatly increasing the potential for more bushfires and these events may not be as extraordinary as we like to think.

We need to be watching closely for what went right as well as what went wrong – so as a nation we can learn to better deal with this ongoing threat.

(This article first appeared in the Autumn 2009 issue of Fire Australia magazine.)