Preventing bushfire deaths

Marysville house2 2009

Bushfire CRC researchers from the University of Melbourne and RMIT University have analysed the fatalities of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria to assess how people may need to adapt to future bushfires.

They conclude by saying that Victoria is ill-adapted to large scale complex bushfire risk events. This is due to changing settlement patterns, especially along the peri-urban fringe; the known vulnerabilities of populations living in fire prone areas stemming from a lack of basic knowledge of fire, low levels of preparedness and/or due to physical or mental disabilities; and in the longer term climate change driving a trend towards hotter temperatures, influencing both fire risk and fire fighting abilities.

See article in Environmental Research.

See article in The Australian "Fatal Flaws in Stay or Go bushfire strategy"

In a paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters (ERL), O’Neill and Handmer make several recommendations. They state that these trends may demand a transformation in managing the risk of Australian bushfires that could begin by focusing on the following four areas:

1. Diminish the hazard
The fire hazard could be reduced through prevention of initial ignition (for example, by altering electrical power
distribution systems to reduce the risk of fire ignition from arcing cables during extreme fire danger days; psychological work on arson prevention) and through strategic fuel reduction.

2. Reduce the exposure of infrastructure and buildings
This might include avoiding very high hazard areas for vulnerable uses (for example no housing at the top of steep, north facing, forested ridges) and improving building codes to make houses more resistant to extreme conditions.

3. Reduce the vulnerability of people
This could be addressed through agencies taking more responsibility for vulnerability reduction, especially by acknowledging and addressing individual vulnerabilities (for example, accepting the lived realities of elderly and disabled people living in bushfire prone areas and supporting the development of fire plans that take their needs into account); engaging communities and other stakeholders in the development of fire planning and management, to support long-term resilience for living in bushfire prone areas; through formal fire safety training, including mental preparedness training, for those at risk. This is part of a broader question of how risk and responsibility should be shared across society.

4. Increase the adaptive capacity of institutions
Institutional change needs to occur both through mechanisms such as insurance (for example, insurers requiring risk reduction measures as a precondition for cover) but also in changing ways of thinking within institutions in situations of very high fire risk. Examples of good practice include the Tasmania Fire Service policy of focusing on the protection of lives and critical infrastructure rather than conventional fire fighting when extreme fire danger is predicted.