New bushfire warning system unveiled

   New bushfire warning system unveiled

10 September 2009

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Australia — A new “catastrophic” warning has been added to the new national fire code launched around Australia.

Under the new six-stage rating system, fire danger starts at low to moderate and runs through to severe and extreme with the highest code red warning being catastrophic.

Victorian premier John Brumby announced the new ratings on Thursday at Marysville, northwest of Melbourne, where 34 people died in the Black Saturday inferno on February 7.

“These warnings are for days – not just total fire ban days – but where the combination of dried material, wind and temperature gives you a day which is potentially catastrophic, which we will be referring to as a code red day,” Mr Brumby said.

“It will put people on alert and make sure that if they are in high-risk areas they will look at all the information and, in particular, on leaving early and relocating.”

The code red warning will come into play when the key fire index is at 100-plus. An index of 50 is considered extreme.

Mr Brumby said that on Black Saturday, the fire index in some parts of Victoria was 300 and above.

But the government is still working out how it will get the message out.

A spokeswoman for Mr Brumby said it may be included in weather reports from the Bureau of Meteorology and on the website of the Country Fire Authority and be sent in a text to mobile phones.

“It’s under development, but it will be resolved before the next fire season,” she told AAP.

The changes were among the key recommendations from the Bushfire Task Force which broadly followed recommendations from the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.

During the Black Saturday fires, residents relied on the CFA website and warnings from the CFA and Department of Environment and Sustainability that were broadcast over ABC radio.

Marysville resident and town doctor Lachlan Fraser said that on February 7, he had tried to find out for two hours what the fire situation was before the blaze descended on the town.

“Then when I was leaving I had to help someone in a car accident and that just left me 20 minutes to get out,” he told AAP.

“But I wouldn’t wait for a government warning to organise myself – we can have our own network where we warn each other.

“Even putting a whiteboard outside the fire and police stations carrying the warnings would be useful.”

NSW Emergency Services Minister Steve Whan said a forecast of catastrophic conditions would be made when there was a very real likelihood of major loss of life and property.

“We’re telling them that a catastrophic fire danger day is a day when trying to save your home might put your life at risk,” Mr Whan said.

In South Australia, CFS chief officer Euan Ferguson said on such days relocating to a safer place would be the best option.

He said any fires that started on code red days could become uncontrollable, unpredictable and fast moving.

The new category will be added to Fire Danger Meter signs in bushfire-prone communities around the country.

“We’re trying to get a consistent educational message across all of Australia and the states have been working together over the past few months to achieve that,” Mr Whan said.

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