How well prepared is Australia for 2009 bushfire season?

How well prepared is Australia for 2009 bushfire season?

19 November 2009

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Australia– After issuing a “catastrophic” fire warnings for the first time today, Australian authorities were relieved no bushfires broke out in areas covered by the warning.

Despite searing temperatures and strong winds, the two northern districts of the state of South Australia remained safe. But there are concerns about whether Australians properly understand the new national warning system. And, after the damage wreaked by Victoria’s “Black Saturday” bushfires in February, experts are warning the state could be in for another devastating fire season.

Presenter: Joanna McCarthy
Speakers: Professor John Handmer, director, Centre for Risk and Community Safety, RMIT University, Melbourne; Brenton Eden, co-ordinator, Country Fire Service, South Australia; Simon Overland, Victorian Police Chief Commissioner

MCCARTHY: Australian authorities issued a warning of catastrophic fire danger for two northern districts of South Australia this week. It was the first time such a rating has been used as part of a new national warning system introduced after the Victorian bushfires in February. South Australia’s Country Fire Service State Coordinator Brenton Eden, says the system worked well.

EDEN: Well I think it’s been a reasonable success, obviously heard from our local communities just what that feedback has been and we’ll use that to refine our systems and work as we go on.

MCCARTHY: The feedback wasn’t all positive with reports two-thirds of people in bushfire prone zones hadn’t heard warnings or didn’t think they were affected. The Police Chief Commissioner in the state of Victoria, Simon Overland, is also concerned people just don’t understand the new system.

OVERLAND: We need to continue to work at it but we need the community to work with us, we need them to listen, we need them to understand, really understand what the new emergency management arrangements are about, how they relate to them, particularly in their individual circumstances.

MCCARTHY: The warnings come as Australia braces for another bushfire season that experts warn could be just as if not more dangerous than the last. 173 people died when fires swept Victoria on the 7th of February this year, a day now known as Black Saturday. Recent weeks have seen heatwave conditions in several Australian states. The Head of the Centre for Risk and Community Safety at RMIT University, Professor John Handmer, says he’s very concerned about what the coming months could have in store.

HANDMER: The heatwave that we’re having dries things out more and more so it’s not just that we could have severe bushfires very early in the season like as in New South Wales as they’re experiencing now, but that as things dry out towards the end of the season, say in February, we could have more very severe fires. And that’s a major worry.

MCCARTHY: The lessons of Black Saturday are being absorbed by an official Royal Commission in Victoria. It’s looking at the controversial stay or go policy, which advised residents to either leave a bushfire zone early or stay and defend their property. The Commission found 113 people were killed sheltering in their houses. Professor Handmer has appeared before the Commission and evaluated the stay or go policy for the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre.

HANDMER: What we can say about the review of the stay and defend policy is that the historical evidence supports it quite strongly, but the historical evidence didn’t really encompass fires of the intensity of Black Saturday. Other key factors were that people are now living in amongst the forest, we’ve got suburbia spreading in amongst the bushland and that bush has become extremely dry after years and years of drought, and the unprecedented heatwave that we had in the weeks before the fires. And so under those sort of extreme conditions the standard policy I think wasn’t adequate. Staying and defending required very special precautions. Some people had those like sprinkler systems and so on, but perhaps most people didn’t have that level of preparation.

MCCARTHY: Professor Handmer will also play a key role in the next special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He’s the coordinating lead author for the chapter on changes in the impacts of climate extremes, and he says climate change could create the conditions that will lead to more bushfires like those seen on Black Saturday.

HANDMER: It’s very difficult to take individual events and to attribute them to climate change. What we can say I think is that this sort of event is quite consistent with hotter, drier conditions, and the climate scientists point out that with global warming, hotter, drier conditions are almost certain. So the sorts of conditions that led to that fire are likely to be much more common. And so we need to take adaptive action to really work on reducing the impacts of the fires.

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