Australia — AUSTRALIA’S revered “stay or go” bushfire policy failed catastophically during Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday inferno, reflecting the state’s inability to manage such extreme events, according to a new analysis of evidence from the royal commission into the tragedy.
According to geographers Saffron O’Neill of Melbourne University and John Handmer with RMIT University, the state’s fire preparedness strategies must be “transformed” or the next “complex” bushfire will cost far more than Black Saturday’s 172 lives and $3.5 billion in damage.
According to Professor Handmer and Dr O’Neill, most people who died in the fires left the decision to leave their homes too late or had fire plans containing “fatal flaws” — such as sheltering in a bathroom or other small room — where they were unaware of what was happening to the rest of the house and had no way to escape when the house caught fire.
“This is not a small step or a small change,” said Professor Handmer of the vulnerabilities he and Dr O’Neill detail today in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
“We are the victims of our own success,” said Dr Handmer, noting that strategies for preparing for and coping with ordinary bushfires were totally inadequate in the face of hot, fast-moving wildfires.
The researchers recommend policymakers focus on four areas: diminishing the hazard — for instance, by altering electrical power distribution systems; reducing the exposure of infrastructure and buildings by prohibiting housing in high-hazard areas; reducing the vulnerability of people — by, for example, identifying disabled people; and boosting the adaptive capacity of institutions such as insurers and firefighters.
The findings fit neatly with those reported last month by a team led by Philip Gibbons, a natural resource management expert with Canberra’s Australian National University.
The team reported in the journal PLoS ONE that prescribed backburning would not protect against intense fires such as Black Saturday’s.
“This new research makes it clear we’re still learning important things since the wind-up of the royal commission,” Dr Gibbons said. “It worries me that decision-makers will think ‘we’re done’ because they’ve had a royal commission, instead of continuing to learn and adapt.”
According to all three experts, Victoria is woefully unprepared for severe bushfires, which are expected to worsen and increase due to a rapidly growing population in fire-prone areas, an ageing demographic and more extreme weather events triggered by climate change.
“Our leaders should not be scared of telling people they cannot control fires,” said Dr Gibbons.
Professor Handmer and Dr O’Neill analysed confidential records of circumstances surrounding each Black Saturday death, at the request of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.