Australia — Australia is one of the most bushfire-prone nations in the world, yet many of the measures we could be taking to assess and reduce the impact of fire are going begging.
TEMPERATURES IN PARTS OF Australia hit the low 40s in late November. Summer has hardly started but bushfires already have damaged property and land in every state.
The combination of high levels of rainfall over the winter and a relatively dry September and October, has created a dangerous situation: the abundant grass growth which occurred during over winter is now drying off to become a significant fire hazard to many communities.
The 2012-13 Seasonal Outlook of the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) has highlighted the above average fire potential for large areas of southern Australia this summer.
At this time, when fire protection and safety should be topping the environmental agenda, the funding of fire brigades and emergency services in cities and rural areas is undergoing cuts as governments struggle with deficits or strive to balance budgets. In Victoria, the state government has reduced fire brigade funding for this year alone by $65 million.
It is, of course, important to remember fire risk is compounded by a number of factors besides emergency services, namely:
The lack of preparedness in rural and regional communities. Recent surveys suggest that despite the tragedy of Black Saturday only three years ago, a mere one third of people in these fire-prone areas currently have proper emergency preparedness plans for bushfires.
Evidence shows that most people either do not evacuate their homes early enough on days of high or extreme fire danger, or often make decisions quite late to reach places of safety.
Some governments, including Victoria, which has one of the highest fire threat levels in Australia, have done little planning to improve fire safety of communities. The Australian Standard AS3959 for bushfire protection of defendable individual dwellings has been prescribed for new homes and renovations in bushfire prone areas, but does not require application to existing homes. Similarly, an Australian Standard has been developed for domestic refuges, but its value has been questionable.
Australia – one of the most bushfire prone nations of the world – has a shameful lack of information or data on the losses and costs of fire events in Australia in comparison with other countries. This is significantly affecting our ability to make the right decisions in terms of changes to building codes and regulations, infrastructure design and ability to develop new technologies, which will provide more cost effective fire safety solutions.
I believe what’s needed first and foremost is a national approach to fire data collection, analysis and dissemination with Fire Protection Association Australia or an alternative body charged with this critical fire safety task.
We are losing valuable flora and fauna on top of expensive economic damage and, at times, a tragic human toll.
What we also need is the development of ‘defendable spaces’ in high-risk, fire-prone areas to create resilient communities. Defendable space denotes an area of land around a building where vegetation is modified and managed to reduce the effects of fire. In order to protect those who are most vulnerable to the impact of bushfires, we need defendable community space close to schools, aged care buildings, community centres and other facilities at which vulnerable people can congregate. These buildings also need to made resistant to bushfire attack. This is particularly essential if we consider the evidence that many people are simply not leaving fire-stricken areas in time.
Importantly, there must be high quality, well protected and resilient infrastructure, including warning and communication systems to facilitate quicker community actions and effective evacuation processes. The recent fire in the regional telephone exchange at Warrnambool showed how communities and emergency services can be paralysed when ‘000’ calls, mobiles, landlines and the Internet are all lost when one facility goes down.
Over the past 10 years, Australia has lost significant portions of our natural environment to massive and highly destructive bushfires across the country. We are losing valuable flora and fauna on top of expensive economic damage and, at times, a tragic human toll.
Unfortunately for us, this pattern is only expected to worsen over time as the frequency and severity of extreme weather events is predicted to increase. To combat this, we need more research and better planning for climate change adaption, as well as a greater understanding of the full impact of bushfires on communities and the emergency services.
It is a huge challenge, but one that must be faced in our current world.
Peter Johnson is a Principal, Fellow and former international practice leader in fire safety engineering at Arup. He was inducted recently as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) for his international contributions to the research and application of performance based design of fire safety for buildings and infrastructure.
The failure was in the forest areas.Advertisement
Following a 10-year strategy, ACT fire managers have created a mosaic across the landscape of different fuel levels, burning at every opportunity.
But forests have been too wet to burn this spring and the past two summers.
A network of 500 fire trails and strategic burns along the north-west urban edge, heavy grazing and extra grass slashing will create a fortress for the territory which forecasters say faces a higher than average risk this summer.
After a fire-fuelled tornado in January 2003 killed four Canberrans and frightened thousands more, CSIRO fire expert Phil Cheney told the subsequent inquiry the fire’s penetration into urban areas under extreme conditions did not reflect a failure of fuel management on the urban interface.