Marysville bushfire on Black Saturday like Dresden bombings

Marysville bushfire on Black Saturday like Dresden bombings

24 June 2009

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Australia —

The massive bushfire that engulfed Marysville and killed 34 people on February 7 created a fire storm similar to those which destroyed Dresden and Tokyo during allied bombing raids in World War 2, the Black Saturday royal commission was told today.Monash University bushfire researcher David Packham said there was house to house ignition in the town after the main fire front moved through, which left only a handful of buildings standing.

“What we clearly had in Marysville was a massive ignition by spot fires and after the initial run of the fire over Marysville we effectively had a mass fire effect of the Dresden-Tokyo type,” Mr Packham said.

Mr Packham, who also spent 18 years as a bushfire researcher with the CSIRO, said he did not believe that any single town in Australia’s history had been so devastated by a bushfire.

He said it was possible to accurately predict the number of lives that would be lost in a bushfire by calculating the intensity of a fire in any given area using the levels of fuel available and the forecast weather conditions.

Using the formula he developed in the 1990s by examining previous fatal bushfires, the number of deaths would be equal the fire intensity multiplied by .56 (point five six).

He used the formula after Black Saturday to calculate the number of lives that could have been expected to have been lost, given fuel loads and weather conditions forecast prior to the day.

The figure he reached was about 300, which was 127 more than the actual death toll.

“There are no surprises in this,” Mr Packham said.

“This is all quite predictable.”

He said the formula showed that if fuel loads were reduced in bushfire prone areas, the number of lives lost in fires would be reduced.

Research also showed that younger people were more likely to survive bushfires than the elderly.

Those aged under 20 were three times as likely to survive a bushfire and those aged under 50 were twice as likely to survive. But those aged over 55 were three times more likely to die.

Bushfires were very much a Victorian problem, with 600 of the 800 bushfire deaths recorded in Australia in the past 100 years occuring in that state, he said.

But because disastrous fires such as Black Saturday and Ash Wednesday only occurred about every 30 years, the lessons learned after each fire were forgotten.

He told the inquiry that public bushfire refuges, which were largely decommissioned in Victoria during the 1990s because they were in conflict with the Country Fire Authority’s contentious “stay and defend or leave early” policy, could help save lives.

Refuges, which could be public buildings or ovals defended by firefighters, could be used by the elderly or disabled and people living in houses that were impossible to defend.

The hearing continues.

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