We can track cyclones on the net, why not fires?

We can track cyclones on the net, why not fires?

22 August 2010

published by www.theage.com.au

Australia — Across the spectrum of media and political discussion following the release of the Bushfires Royal Commission report, one important recommendation is being ignored.

Recommendation one includes: to ”enhance the role of warnings – including providing for timely and informative advice about the predicted passage of fire and the actions to be taken by people in areas potentially in its path”.

People died in the bushfires because they were trapped, some because of the misguided presumption they were adequately prepared, but most because after they became aware of their personal danger, they either had nowhere to go or were caught fleeing.

Data from other forms of natural disasters show opposing trends for the rate of loss of life and for the value of lost property. Despite increasing population densities, loss of life is declining, whereas the monetary cost of lost property is increasing.

The reduction in loss of life can be attributed to an emphasis on safety and the development of warning and preparedness measures to guide people to safety.

People no longer try to fight the fury of tropical cyclones or tornadoes; they seek shelter.

The glaring failure on Black Saturday was the inadequacy of the warning system; either the responsible agencies did not know the specific location and extent of outbreaks or they could not communicate with people who were in danger.

Loss of life in cyclones and tornadoes is being minimised because there are systems in place to alert communities. When a cyclone appears over our northern waters, we can all track its position and progress via the internet. In the US, areas tornadoes may hit are broadcast on TV and graphical information is available on the net; people seek adequate shelter.

Recommendation one of the Bushfires Royal Commission is the most fundamental, but there is no guidance for its technological implementation. Were neither the agencies of government nor academic experts able to give the commission a lead?

Bushfires emit strong infrared radiation signals, signals comparable to the radar reflections of cloud droplets that allow the mapping of cyclones and tornadoes. Where in the commission’s report is there a recommendation to develop fire tracking technology to allow individuals to maintain watch over their personal safety?

We are past the days of fire towers, intermittent communications and reliance on authorities to individually warn those who might be in danger. There is a need for ongoing mapping of infrared signals to ensure individuals can assess their personal danger, identify safe areas and make a timely retreat.

There has been much discussion of the so-called ”stay or go” policy. Such a policy is only practical if people have timely warnings, can ascertain their personal danger and have a safe exit strategy.

Black Saturday was one of the worst potential fire days in Victoria’s recorded history. The weather forecasts of the day before left no doubt that the conditions were going to be dreadful. But nobody was in any danger until ignition took place.

Once ignition had occurred, whether from natural causes, equipment malfunction or arson, actual danger was realised, both downwind of the spreading fire and off from the flank, where later wind change would give rise to new danger.

Until ignition took place, there was no reason for anyone to leave their home unless they were concerned they had no safe exit strategy. The 2003 Canberra fire and 1967 Hobart fire show that not even suburbs are safe.

There is much discussion about the value of fuel reduction to reduce the intensity of a fire. It is a no-brainer that residents clear debris and vegetation from around their property. Those who wish to live in a bushland setting take action (with expert guidelines) to minimise the danger to their property by appropriate local fuel reduction. There are few examples from Black Saturday, other than clear-felling, to demonstrate fuel reduction as a panacea.

The larger picture is the extent to which native forests should be periodically burned for fuel reduction. Our communities have outlawed backyard incinerators, but are we going to now have our air permanently polluted from autumn to spring with smoke from fuel reduction?

The Canberra and Hobart fires, and the many others that have devastated rural communities, are a stark reminder that from time to time conditions will prevail to make outbreaks unstoppable. No degree of land-use zoning will save endangered communities.

Our governments would serve us better by investing in the development and implementation of technology to track fires. Such a publicly accessible system would enable people to take timely action for orderly evacuation to known safety.

William Kininmonth is a retired meteorologist and author of Climate Change: a Natural Hazard.

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