Bushfires in Australia: There is a bit of complacency in all of us

By Richard Thornton

Summary: The next time we have a summer scorcher, picture yourself in the great Australian bush, and ask yourself: what have you learned?

February 7, 2019, marked the tenth anniversary of the devastating bushfires that struck Victoria, Australia, killing 173 people, and damaging thousands of homes and businesses. What was a calamitous day for many is now viewed as a watershed moment in the way such emergencies are handled, not just in Australia, but around the world. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre extends its deepest condolences to all those communities impacted by these fires.

Looking back at 2009, there was widespread disbelief at how such a major catastrophe could have hit Victoria, arguably one of the leading Australian states for bushfire community engagement and safety. There were many areas that were part of the Country Fire Authority (Victoria’s rural fire agency) Community Fireguard program, which in itself was seen as best practice for community engagement and safety, and the Australian model of ‘Stay or Go’ as it had been dubbed, was showcased and had started to take a foothold in parts of the United States. Black Saturday put a serious halt to all that, and wide-reaching community pain and hurt were felt throughout Australia. But the extraordinary thing about this summer day that turned bad was that the weather and fire conditions were inevitable, and they could happen again.

Comprehensive changes for a better tomorrow

Valid questions for 2019 include what has changed since this devastating day and the lead-up to it? What do we know now that we didn’t then; how has extensive research changed our approach; and what role does personal behaviour play in survival? In short, the changes have been comprehensive – in policy, operations, community engagement, and in the way we have invested in learning.

Firstly, changes to the Victorian fire services now make it very clear who is accountable. The position of the Fire Services Commissioner was created and has since broadened in scope to be the Emergency Management Commissioner. This was not just simply a change in titles, but a fundamental shift in the approach to critical decisions in complex and highly-stressful situations.

Secondly, community information and warnings are now significantly different in both content and tone to ensure that they are heard and – more importantly – acted upon. Immediately following the fires, Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre researchers surveyed several thousand community members to understand what they did and didn’t do, and why. It was a revelation to fire agencies to learn that many people neither heard or understood their fire warnings and information. Our research identified something in the psyche of many people under threat of fire – either actual or potential – that makes them process that information in unexpected ways. Despite the stated intention to either ‘Stay or Go’, many people did not do this, for various reasons, or misunderstood what it meant to either stay or to go.

Fire agencies across Australia have learned from this and have adopted stronger and more specific community messaging, which has undoubtedly resulted in a reduction in loss of life in subsequent bushfires. This has been a long and difficult task and the role of research has been not just to identify the limitations of current warnings and emergency information, but to help construct a new language that has an impact. These insights into human behaviour have been supplemented through surveys conducted by CRC researchers following major bushfires across Australia over the last decade.

Thirdly, the extensive investment in science has led to a better understanding of the fire behaviour that occurred on that day – how fire moves across different types of land and how fire interacts with the atmosphere to create its own weather. These new insights are embedded in training packages for fire behaviour analysts to provide more accurate warnings to the community. We now have fire simulation tools used routinely in control rooms throughout the country. The residents of Gracemere, Queensland were the most recent beneficiaries of these simulations in November last year as the predicted path of a fast-moving fire placed them in great potential danger – specific warnings were enacted, firefighting resources were redirected, and the safety of the town and its residents was ensured. These tools did not exist in Australian control centres in 2009 and would not have existed without the boost in research effort after these fires.

Finally, following the extensive examination of the houses that were lost and, equally importantly, those that survived, CRC researchers provided expert advice on the building standards to ensure that new buildings are safer and more likely to survive to provide resident protection during bushfires.

Ensure resiliency for an inevitable outcome

What remains is the troubling thought that even with all these major changes in community engagement, fire agency operations, decision support tools, building codes, and weather and fire behaviour forecasts, days like February 7, 2009, are not just possible again in Australia, but could remain inevitable.

However, if Black Saturday taught us anything, it is that on these days our fire agencies could not stop these fires any more than they can stop a cyclone or volcano. What we can do is ensure that communities, businesses, and governments are resilient to disasters. It is clear we still need to have a stronger investment focus on mitigation, and we need to be clear that this is mainly about mitigating the impacts of hazards, and not the hazard itself. We need to be investing in reducing the risk posed by vegetation in both regional areas as well as on the urban fringe, especially around the places we live and work, in training and resourcing our agencies, and importantly in further research to provide the ongoing evidence for the development of policies and practice to deal with the increasingly hotter and drier climate.

We need to know more about what fires do in various types of vegetation under extreme weather conditions. We need to understand how the raised temperatures and reduced rainfall expected under climate change will change vegetation and flammability across the country, the impacts of climate change at the extreme end of fire weather and how communities, government, and businesses need to adapt to ensure they are as protected as possible against those impacts. There is still a lot of work to do in understanding how communities understand and interpret risk, and how that perception can be changed.

Plan to fight the next big one

At the time, Black Saturday conditions were beyond the imagination of many of in Australia. But they will happen again, as they have happened in the past with the 1939 Black Friday bushfires, and Ash Wednesday in 1983, just to mention a few of Australia’s devastating fires. What does the next bushfire that we think is beyond our imagination look like? What will its impacts be? Next time we will be more resilient because of what we have learned from our past, but we need to be ready not just for what we expect to happen.

To paraphrase the Special Investigator of the 2016 Yarloop fires in Western Australia – we need to be planning to fight the next big fire not the one we have just fought.

Cover photo: Researchers working with fire agencies in the aftermath of the fires, where over 2,000 houses were destroyed. Credit: David Bruce, Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC

Dr Richard Thornton is the CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC in Australia. Directly after the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, he led the research task force investigating the bushfires and how people behaved when under threat.