The deadly Australian bushfires appear to have been so deadly because they were unusual. The fires caught people before they new it was coming, and unlike many fires they were too strong to fight. What made these fires unusual? At first look it seems to be a combination of a lack of social memory, fuel accumulation, and climate change – that together reduced community resilience to fire.
From the New Scientist’s Short sharp science blog Time for a new Australian bushfire policy?
Australia has a national fire-preparedness policy, perhaps uniquely, of encouraging people to either “stay and defend or leave early”. But as the tragedy continues to unfurl there will be increasing pressure to reexamine a policy developed for conditions that existed half a century ago.
The rationale behind the policy is that if you have a fire plan in place – that is, you have a water source, a pump that is not dependent on the power supply, you have ember-proofed your house, and so on – it is safer to stay and let the front pass over, than to leave at the last moment. And historically, it is true that most houses lost in bush fires have burnt because of defendable ember-strikes rather than direct contact with the fire, and most deaths have been due last-minute evacuations.
But conditions have changed. Southern Australia’s epic 12-year drought, higher temperatures due to climate change, and less “prescribed” burning to remove the plant life that acts as fuel, all combine to increase the risk of extreme fire. This year already, we’ve had several days in the mid-40s that have burnt leaves off trees, and squeezed the last drops of moisture out of already tinder-dry bush. One survivor described the ground underfoot prior to the fires going through as “like walking on cornflakes”.
Under those conditions, a fire plan may simply not be enough, as Victoria’s premier John Brumby told the Fairfax Radio Network today: “There is no question that there were people there who did everything right, put in place their fire plan and it wouldn’t matter, their house was just incinerated.” Brumby wants the policy rexamined.
People have changed too. Small towns like devastated Marysville – 90 minutes’ drive northeast of Melbourne – as well as the ever-expanding fire-prone city fringes, are as likely to be home to retirees and “treechangers” (city people who move to the country for a life change) as they are to families with generations of bushfire experience.
One of the commonest reasons for people who intend to stay and defend their properties to change their mind and leave at the last moment is that with no direct experience of fire they are not prepared psychologically.
According to Robert Heath, a psychologist at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, they don’t bank on the overwhelming heat, the lack of contact with the outside world, the darkness, or the noise: loud and like a huge blowtorch, apparently. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that many people who lost their lives are thought to have done so while fleeing in their cars.
For more details see:
- The Melbourne Age videos
- The Australian – “spot-on forecast – why was no one ready?”
- Leader’s rethink survival strategies from Sydney Morning Herald.
- Australian Broadcasting Company’s full coverage of the bushfires.
Thanks to Arijit Guha for pointers.