Environmental circumstances surrounding bushfire fatalities in Australia 1901–2011

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Community Safety
Health and Safety
Risk Management
TitleEnvironmental circumstances surrounding bushfire fatalities in Australia 1901–2011
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsBlanchi, R, Leonard, JE, Haynes, K, Opie, K, James, M, de Oliveira, FDimer
JournalEnvironmental Science & Policy
Start Page1
Date Published11/2013
KeywordsFatalities, Policy, Warnings, Wildfire, WUI
AbstractThis paper describes the development and analysis of a dataset covering bushfire related life loss in Australia over the past 110 years (1901–2011). Over this time period 260 bushfires have been associated with a total of 825 known civilian and firefighter fatalities. This database was developed to provide an evidence base from which an Australian national fire danger rating system can be developed and has benefits in formalising our understanding of community exposure to bushfire. The database includes detail of the spatial, temporal and localised context in which the fatalities occurred. This paper presents the analysis of 674 civilian fatalities. The analysis has focused on characterising the relationship between fatal exposure location, weather conditions (wind speed, temperature, relative humidity and drought indices), proximity to fuel, activities and decision making leading up to the death. The analysis demonstrates that civilian fatalities were dominated by several iconic bushfires that have occurred under very severe weather conditions. The fatalities from Australia's 10 worst bushfire days accounted for 64% of all civilian fatalities. Over 50% of all fatalities occurred on days where the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) exceeded 100 (the current threshold for declaring a day as ‘catastrophic’) proximal to the fatality. The dominant location category was open air representing 58% of all fatalities followed by 28% in structures, and 8% in vehicles (6% are unknown). For bushfires occurring under weather conditions exceeding an FFDI value of 100, fatalities within structures represented over 60% of all fatalities. These were associated with people dying while attempting to shelter mainly in their place of residence. Of the fatalities that occurred inside a structure in a location that was specifically known, 41% occurred in rooms with reduced visibility to the outside conditions. Over 78% of all fatalities occurred within 30 m of the forest.