USA — Back in 2011, the Australian Government committed to assisting communities to better prepare, and respond to natural disasters and emergencies, through the National Emergency Management Program.
One of the projects under the program, which is two years into the research stage, is the development of a new fire danger rating system for Australia.
While Australian firefighting authorities currently use Forest and Grass Fire Danger Indexes (FDI), the CSIRO’s historical research into deaths by bushfire, lead by Justin Leonard; will underpin the new fire danger rating system.
“This is one of the key projects at the start of that larger initiative, to really set the new guidelines and policies around the national [fire] warning systems,” says Mr Leonard.
“We undertook a major review of all the historic [bushfire] deaths, to understand their location and the timing and the context of how each person died.
Mr Leonard says it’s hoped the statistical information will assist fire agencies to better plan for, and respond to fires, with more appropriate and targeted warnings.
Mr Leonard says the data collected for the research includes the past 110 years of bushfire deaths.
“There were around 825 deaths in total that involved around 260 individual bushfires,” says Mr Leonard.
“We split the data up into pre-1965 and post-1965 and what was really obvious was that men or male deaths, dominated the pre-1965 data.
“It seems to be men out in more of a rural or farm setting, were getting caught when they were trying to save livestock and the family farm.”
The gender balance evens up in the post-1965 data, with men only slightly ahead of women, he says.
“There is a really strong bias now, where women tend to be losing their lives in houses, more so than ever before, and men are dying in houses more prevalently,” Mr Leonard says.
“However we are still seeing that obvious scenario, where they are [men] outside defending and they’re caught outside.”
Mr Leonard says it’s important to have your own, well prepared, emergency bushfire plan.
“You really need that absolute certainty, that if you are going to decide to leave, that you can get from your house to a place of safety,” he says.
“If you can’t guarantee that’s the case, then it’s obviously too late to leave your house.”
Bushfire deaths occurring close to forests
Mr Leonard says the research shows a correlation between the proximity of bushfire deaths to the forest.
“Well over 85 per cent of all deaths were within 100 metres of the forest, and well over 60 per cent, were in fact, closer than 30 metres from the forest,” says Mr Leonard.
“Once you’re greater than 80-100 metres from a flame, you start to have a reasonable opportunity to survive, but if you’re closer than that, you’ve got a lot of problems.”
“People are dying very close to their own place of residence, with that being the vast majority of scenarios.”
In fact, Mr Leonard says 60 per cent of people are dying within 100 metres of their own residential addresses.
“They’re leaving too late and not recognising that once the fire is in their area, their house is going to be the safest place to seek refuge, even if that’s a temporary refuge, while the fire passes the house.
Mr Leonard has a few key messages for bushfire preparation:
Heed the warnings around particularly severe fire days.
Prepare well in the lead up to bushfires. For information visit the ABC’s Emergency website.
Go out of your way to assess your local risk, so that you are really well aware what’s going to happen if and when the risk of a fire arrives.