From the ashes

From the ashes

23 February 2009

published by

Australia — Victoria’s bushfires have been described as the worst natural disaster in Australia’s history. They have destroyed more than 450,000 hectares of bush and 1830 homes and have left 7000 people homeless. The official death toll is expected to rise above 200 as forensic investigators attempt to locate those still missing. Many others are seriously injured.

As the enormity of the tragedy unfolds and the task of rebuilding begins, many questions have been raised regarding fire-management practices and the best way to prepare for such events in the future.

How did the fires begin?

The weather bureau regularly calculates a “Forest Fire Danger Index” that is converted to the fire danger rating announced on the radio. Low is up to 5; high is 12-25 and extreme is 50-plus. For the Ash Wednesday fires, for example, the rating was 102. On February 6, the day before the bushfires erupted, it was 180 in parts of the state. With the hottest temperatures on record, a drought-affected landscape and strong northerly winds, bushfire conditions were ripe.

In addition, at least two fires are believed to have been lit by arsonists; so far, one arrest has been made. It has also been alleged that the Kinglake blaze may have been sparked by a two-kilometre stretch of fallen power line in Kilmore East.

The unprecedented nature of the fires will be the subject of a royal commission, recently announced by Premier John Brumby.

What is a royal commission?

A royal commission is a major government public inquiry. After the 1939 bushfires, the results of a royal commission significantly increased fire awareness and prevention.

Mr Brumby has declared that the royal commission into the bushfires will thoroughly investigate “every single factor” and leave “no stone unturned”.

What will the royal commission investigate?

The controversial “stay or leave early” policy – which has allowed people to remain and defend their property, or leave before being at risk – is likely to be reviewed in light of new experiences.

Debate has also centred on the merits of an early-warning communication system, stricter building regulations in fire-prone areas, mandatory bunkers, fuel reduction in forests, improved fire-fighting access and more research. The need for better fire management, particularly where urban areas meet the bush, is another concern.

The effect of climate change has also been raised – along with the issue of whether these fires were a freak event or whether they signal a more significant natural threat in our future..

How has the nation responded?

With more than $100 million donated through fund-raising, the nation has responded with enormous generosity. People continue to give food, clothing, accommodation, furniture and blood. Firefighters from across Australia, and from New Zealand, the US and Canada, have flown in to assist.

What The Age says

“No one can say what difference would have been made by an early-warning system that could instantly send text or voice messages detailing the latest local fire information to all mobile phones and landlines in a specific area. Almost certainly, some lives could have been saved by better information on the state of fires and roads. Victorian Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin yesterday called for such a system to be in place before the next fire season. He said he was frustrated by bureaucratic delays and bickering between the Commonwealth, states and territories over an early-warning system that has been on the table since 2004. Seldom can the costs of red tape have been so high.”

Editorial opinion, February 13

What people say

“It is nice to see support for the CFA policies. We are volunteers; we are not paid for the work we do, nor do we have the manpower to operate `warning systems’ etc. We warn people to leave early, or make sure they have the supplies to stay. Your house is safer, then a car if possible – but never try to run the fire. It’s sad to see so many lost, but why won’t the Government allow back burning? The environment is already lost from these fires, back burning would have put in control points and helped save lives.”

Rebekah, Herald Sun, February 11

“The leave-early-or-stay policy was one of the few recommendations of the Ash Wednesday Royal Commission that was implemented. This was because most who died did so while trying to leave their properties. Too many people ignore the most critical part of a fire plan to prevent the loss of their home – house construction. We do not need another royal commission. The last one recommended a list of house construction measures that were never implemented. We could save time and simply use those. Money spent providing people with access to fire experts to help develop their plan, along with building and planning controls, is the best way.”

Dave Williams, The Age, February 12

“The Victorian fires have elicited knee-jerk reactions, including reactionary calls for more land clearing and fuel-reduction burning. These calls are muddle-headed because they don’t weigh up the substantial cost of burning against the likelihood that those measures will actually work.

“Such measures wouldn’t stop such extreme fires, but would have a substantial impact on native species. Frequent and widespread fuel-reduction fires can eliminate some plant and animal species because they don’t have time to recover between fires. Increased roads and clearing allows access for weeds, feral animals and arsonists. Engineering solutions around our infrastructure will be the most effective response.”

Don Driscoll, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, The Age, February 13

“The science of eucalypts is clear and unequivocal: they are the most flammable trees in existence . . . Environmental groups and local governments must bear a good deal of responsibility and culpability for policies that both promote the planting of eucalypts in built-up areas and prevent and penalise the removal of gum trees around homes. If ever we needed an example of the irresponsibility of such policies, then recent events could not have been more tragic. We all love the Australian bush but our houses are not equipped to withstand eucalypt fireballs.”

John Berger, The Australian, February 14

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