Media Statements

This is a collection of statements provided to the Media from Bushfire CRC researchers:

Professor John Handmer is the Program Leader, Community Self Sufficiency for Fire Safety, at the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) and RMIT University in Melbourne.

On community:

“Our research has shown that fleeing at the last moment is the worst possible option; this is 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.

No decision is risk free – any decision a resident makes in a bushfire involves some degree of risk. This fire shows that leaving late can be the worst decision to make. 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.

The key thing to remember is that late evacuation is extremely dangerous. You are safer in your house than in your car or out in the open.

At this stage, it is too early to judge the application of the Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early policy but it will be properly reviewed along with the normal review of all policies and practices after a major fire event.”

Professor Mark Adams is the Program Leader, Fire in the Landscape, Bushfire CRC and University of Sydney

On the environment:

"We live in a land shaped by fire but as a society we are still learning about the full impact of major bushfires across a whole range of ecological and biological systems. I have spent more than 30 years in the forests that are burning in Victoria this week, including being there during the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983. But I have never seen weather and other conditions as extreme as they were on Saturday. The fire weather was unprecedented.

We do not have all the evidence yet to fully explain this day in terms of climate change. However, all the science to date shows that we can expect more extreme weather in the years to come - that includes hotter days and drier landscapes across southern Australia.

The science also suggests that an increase in the carbon in the atmosphere will promote a more vigorous growth of our forests potentially increasing the fuel loads in years to come." Horizontal rule

Gary Morgan is the CEO Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre

On the bushfire threat:

"This weekend's fires highlight the importance of scientific research in order to improve our understanding of the multiple impacts of bushfires.

Climate change, weather 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 Saturday, for example, show that many communities need to rethink the notion of who lives in a bushfire zone and who needs to be educated and prepared.

Today the fires are still burning and many communities remain under threat. We need to be watching closely for what goes right as well as what goes wrong - so as a nation we can learn to better deal with this ongoing threat of bushfire."

Dr Mary Omodei is Bushfire CRC Project Leader Safe Behaviour and Decision Making and from La Trobe University’s School of Psychological Science in Melbourne. She has worked in bushfire research for a number of years with a focus on how humans (eg: emergency services) exert decision making control over complex systems.

On decision making under duress:

“Although it remains unclear what factors cause such a decline in decision-making ability, our own research findings suggest that such factors range from inherent limitations of cognitive processing abilities (limitations that are further aggravated by cognitive overload and physiological and psychological stress), to the communication and coordination challenges faced by teams of people having to exercise decision making control over such situations.

The weather situation predicted for Saturday and the fire situation that actually occurred on Saturday would have placed decision makers in situations which exceeded the limits of human decision making abilities on many levels.
It is especially important to note that fire behaviour research internationally has not been able to develop robust fire danger rating scales that cover the conditions predicted for Saturday.

This resulted in the need for urgent decisions to be made under extreme uncertainty. Firefighters in both incident control centres and on the fire-ground would have had to make such decisions in the face of fire and weather conditions outside their knowledge and experience.”

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Andrew Sullivan is a fire researcher with CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems and works with the Bushfire CRC Fire Behaviour project, working on bushfire behaviour, combustion dynamics, and firefighter safety.

“In south-east Australia, bad fire days are associated with the presence of a 'blocking' high pressure system in the Tasman Sea. This brings hot, dry strong wind from the centre of the continent to the south-east.

The high temperatures and dry air experienced throughout Victoria on Saturday resulted in very low fuel moisture content. Combined with the extended rainfall deficit for much of the state, this resulted in tinder-dry fuel that was very easily ignited and very difficult to extinguish. In addition, very strong winds resulted in fires that spread very rapidly with the wind and were practically unstoppable until the weather moderated following the cool change.

Saturday's fire weather conditions were similar to those experienced on Black Friday in January 1939 and Ash Wednesday in February 1983.”

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Justin Leonard is Bushfire CRC Project Leader Building and Occupant Protection, an urban design and bushfire research scientist with CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems.

"The fire weather seen on Saturday in many areas of Victoria with a few exceptions, is likely to be experience by a house at least once during its design life.

Historically, most of Victoria’s house loss has occurred under similar hot, dry and windy conditions. These conditions that promote fire spread are the same conditions that dry out combustible elements in, on and around the home, leaving them more vulnerable to ignition and fire spread."

Professor Ross Bradstock is Leader of Bushfire CRC Project Fire Regimes and Sustainable Landscape Risk Management, and the Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong. His expertise is in fire science, fire ecology, climate change and risk management.

“From what we’ve seen the weather conditions in Melbourne were almost unprecedented on Saturday, probably a record, so it looks as if it’s off the top of the scale. The weather has a huge effect on the intensity of the fires including the rate of spread. Conditions are at least equivalent if not worse than 1939. You couple that with a whole range of other factors, plus some of these fires have broken out very quickly so people have been caught by surprise.

The other disturbing thing is that probably a lot of the deaths are on the roads, in motor vehicles. The authorities have been pushing a policy of trying to encourage people to stay with their property, not to evacuate, especially at the last minute, so it will be interesting to see what the breakdown of fatalities are in terms of whether many people have been killed actually staying with their buildings or not but we just don’t know. But it looks as if there’s a hell of a lot of carnage on the road.

There’s pretty concrete evidence that you’re much safer staying with your building. A lot of these houses actually burnt after the fire front had passed because while they do catch fire, it takes a while for them to burn down, so even if you’re in a house which is on fire in the early stages, you’re actually safer than being outside. But it’s too early to assess things like that; we just don’t have the data.
Many of these towns like Kinglake and Marysville have been burnt out before, it’s a very dangerous environment, the tall forests of Victoria are a pretty dangerous place to live. Under these sorts of conditions it really does make you think very carefully about urban planning.

It might be the sort of conditions we can expect more of in the future under climate change, there’s certainly a fair bit of evidence of that kind around.”

Dr Judy Putt is General Manager Research, Australian Institute of Criminology and leader of the Bushfire CRC arson project.

“Arson costs the Australian community $1.6 billion each year. The vast majority of vegetation fires in Australia are caused by people with around half – some 20,000 to 30,000 each year – deliberately lit.

Most arsonists are young, male and, although unlikely to have had a previous recorded conviction for arson, are likely to have been convicted of other offences. They are rarely dedicated arsonists or pyromaniacs but general offenders who happen to light fires. Their various motivations include excitement, recognition and attention, revenge, material gain, vandalism, or for no reason at all.”

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