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Issue # 1425      26 August 2009

Victorian bushfire report delivers grim warning

Last Tuesday the initial report of an official inquiry into the bushfires that ravaged country Victoria last February 7, now known as Black Saturday, was released. The fire claimed 173 lives (including 113 people who died at home). It wreaked havoc on 78 communities over 430,000 hectares, an area which included national parks, and was the worst natural disaster in Australia’s recorded history. The final report will deal with each fatality, and with the issue of controlled burning within the fire area. The terrible story of the Black Saturday fires carries important messages about our environment, which is changing at a rapid rate.

The Inquiry’s findings and their implications

The report contains severe criticism of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) and, by implication, of the Brumby government. Evidence was presented that warnings about specific fires were deficient in timing and content, that the language used to describe the fires was sometimes confusing, and that the CFA’s communication technology was in some respects inadequate, especially given the speed at which the fires spread.

The report was critical of the CFA, and in particular of its chief officer, Russell Rees. Nevertheless, it did not apportion blame for the disaster to the Authority, and the Government has recently reappointed Rees to his position. The outcome could have been far worse, if not for the CFA and the fire fighters. The CFA depends on volunteers and community support won over many hard years of fire-fighting. It has already taken many new initiatives, particularly with regard to improved communication and public warnings, in preparation for the new bushfire season, now only nine weeks away.

However, it is clear that the CFA must adapt to the new environment by incorporating the most advanced scientific methods of predicting, reducing the risk and dealing with fires.

The inquiry heard many suggestions for reducing fire risk, including the removal of vegetation growing close to roads, which endangered or blocked the passage of vehicles fleeing the Black Saturday fires. Evidence put to the inquiry also indicates that staying in one’s home and dousing bushfire embers is only relevant for fires of relatively minor intensity. Traditional homes have little or no chance of surviving another Black Saturday. As one witness said, “In a severe fire, houses are not refuges, they are fuel.”

In at least one case, a resident survived the passage of the fire by taking shelter in a concrete underground structure, indicating that new homes and refuge bunkers in existing homes will have to be built with materials and construction methods that have been proved to resist the spread of fire.

The report contained recommendations concerning the broadcast and language of fire warnings, the use of sirens, the classification of fires, the early evacuation of children, and community refuges. It recommended that the Victorian Education Department should take a number of new initiatives, and that commercial broadcasters should carry reports of fires, as well as the ABC. However, it did not recommend compulsory evacuation procedures.

Further inquiry hearings will examine the key role of the CFA chief officer, in particular regarding the provision of information about the path and speed of a fire’s progress. It will also discuss the issue of fire control burning. Victorian Premier John Brumby has admitted that many of the Black Saturday failings “related to funding and policy”, and surely one of the biggest failings was the inadequacy of controlled burning to reduce the risk of fire. A parliamentary committee’s recommendation that the amount of controlled burning should be tripled was never carried out. The outcome seems evident in the aftermath of Black Saturday.

The wider message

The CFA and its chief officer were criticised in the report, and have come under attack by the mass media, but focusing on their behaviour misses the main point. The procedures the CFA followed were inadequate to deal with the unprecedented speed and ferocity of the Black Saturday inferno, which is symptomatic of the new conditions arising from climate change.

The nation must now gear up to deal with fires of that magnitude, and must take other action to meet the challenges of climate change. This will necessitate an enormous reconsideration of the way we treat the natural environment, which needs to be enriched, not just exploited for the convenience of agricultural and other business interests.

In Australia, devastating bushfires will be far more frequent. Southern Australia will experience frequent and long droughts, increasing the risk of fires and reducing water resources, while the north will experience heavier downpours and more frequent floods. Bushfires exacerbate climate change because they increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In order to mitigate climate change, the world’s vegetation, including Australia’s, must be increased, in order to reduce the carbon dioxide level.

Other nations are dealing with problems of a similar scale. Some Middle Eastern nations are attempting to green their deserts, many of which were created by human behaviour. We may have to do the same, and to examine other visionary schemes, like diverting water from flooded north-flowing Queensland rivers back into the south-flowing Darling River, in order to save the parched southern areas. That may or may not be a pipe dream, but it is clear that we are going to need to take enormous new initiatives in order to meet the challenges of the environmental crisis demonstrated in the Black Saturday fires.

Next articleWe have the moral high ground

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