Australia on Fire

By now you would've heard the news of severe wildfires here in Australia - it is one of the top news stories around the world at the moment. So far 107 people have been confirmed dead and over 750 homes lost in Australia's greatest bushfire tragedy.

Fortunately for me and my family, we are located about 1000km (620 miles) away from this tragedy. Nevertheless we have suffered 12 days in a row of temperatures exceeding 30°C (86°F). Our grass is brown and leaves are wilting. Today is the first day of sub-30 temperatures and rain is predicted in the next few days, which is good news.

Bushfires (what Australians call wildfires) are a natural hazard. Australia is a dry continent and bushfires are a common occurrence. Our history is replete with deadly bushfires dating back to the 19th century.

Until the weekend, Australia's deadliest Bushfire was the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983. Spread across two states (Victoria and South Australia), these fires killed a total of 75 people - 47 in Victoria and 28 in South Australia. The Ash Wednesday fires were an important step in changing Australian fire-fighting, especially in regards to bushfires.

One of the most important things that was discovered during the months of examination that followed was that many of the dead were found in their burnt-out cars. From this they deduced (quite rightly) that there was a greater chance of survival if people stayed with their homes rather than evacuating at the last minute.

Another important discovery was that the earlier communities were advised of danger, the more likely they were to survive. This was because people either evacuated early, or were able to prepare their houses in time to face the onslaught.

Along with more advanced fire fighting techniques, aided by more accurate meteorological information and satellites, bushfires in Australia became less life-threatening. Here's a list of Australia's major bushfires and their death toll:

1898 Red Tuesday: 12 dead.
1939 Black Friday: 71 dead.
1967 Black Tuesday: 62 dead.
1983 Ash Wednesday: 75 dead.
1994 Sydney Bushfires: 4 dead.
2003 Canberra Bushfire: 4 dead.

I lived in Sydney In 1994 and I clearly remember those fires. All three major highways out of Sydney were affected, leaving Sydney essentially cut off from the rest of Australia for a number of days. Ash fell onto our lawn and I even picked up a carbonised gum leaf that had obviously travelled from the fires many kilometres to our house in Merrylands (which was nowhere near the fires). I remember riding my motorbike on the raised section of the M4 motorway and glancing North, South and West and seeing huge plumes of smoke in the distance from the three fires that threatened Sydney.

And yet, despite the massive danger these fires posed, and despite all the houses destroyed, early warnings and more detailed data helped to reduce the 1994 death toll to just 4.

So it is therefore with a great sense of surprise and sadness that I learn of the deaths of so many in Victoria on Saturday. Obviously there will be a Royal Commission into what transpired in Victoria and this inquiry will expose any human error. Knowing this, though, I do suggest that a number of problems have already been exposed:
  1. People died in their cars. As I stated before, evacuating at the last minute was shown to be more fatal than staying with your property as the fire hit. That was one of the discoveries made after 1983. Why then, in the year 2009, were people doing this? I had always believed that people who lived in bushfire prone areas had had this fact drilled into them and told to either evacuate early or stay with your home. Yet in Victoria 2009, many people died in their cars. This suggests a number of things, including the potential failure of authorities to educate people.
  2. People said they had no warning. As I watched the network news reporting, I was stunned to hear story after story of survivors in tears as they explained just how quick and devastating the fires were, and how unprepared they were for their onslaught. Why was this the case? When residents are notified early enough, people can evacuate sooner or prepare for the worst. From what I can gather, some people were only aware of the impending disaster once their house caught fire. The fact that so many were unprepared could be because fire authorities did not notify residents quickly enough, or if they did, then only in some places and not in others. One of the more damning pieces of evidence was that Victorian fire authorities announced on Friday - the day before the bushfires - that weather conditions on Saturday were very much like the 1983 fires. In other words, people knew before the fires struck that a potential disaster could take place. Yet despite this announcement to the entire state on Friday, people on Saturday were unprepared.
Having said all this, it is also possible that weather conditions were so severe and so unique that no amount of preparation or skill in command and control or communication could have saved the 107+ confirmed dead. In this case, the disaster is simply an uncontrollable act of nature that could not have been avoided nor mitigated. Part of me hopes that this is the case, yet the idea that bushfires - a natural Australian phenomenon - should somehow become more unpredictable and severe than normal is questionable. The human element - notably a failure in communication - is likely to be a major factor in the deaths resulting in these fires.

1 comment:

BLBeamer said...

We have read about the terrible wildfires in Australia. Our prayers go out to you all in this terrible time of tragedy. We hope all the arsonists involved are swiftly caught and fully punished for their terrible crimes.

Our condolences go to the survivors, displaced people who have lost their homes and pray God greatly comforts the families and friends of those that have perished.

BL and Mrs. Beamer