Predicting Black Saturday

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Forecast For Disaster, the Weather Channel'You can't trust the weather.' So, according to my nanna, went the cry of one particular Australian bird. Wise words from a native inhabitant of the Victorian bush. Melbourne is notorious for its 'four seasons in one day', and the margin for error in predicting weather patterns has made weather forecasters the butt of many a joke.

Of course, weather forecasts are not always wrong. In retrospect, one of the most frightening aspects of the Black Saturday bushfires was how precisely meteorologists and other experts predicted the behaviour of the weather on the day, and how it would impact upon the fires, which, by Friday 6 February, seemed nearly certain to occur.

The Weather Channel documentary Forecast For Disaster utilises footage of its own pre-fire forecasts, and interviews with key meteorologists and survivors, to examine the weather patterns during the months and days preceding, and on the day of, the fire. To recreate the nightmare, so to speak.

Heavy December rainfall, followed by a hot, dry January, had caused undergrowth to first burgeon, then wither. This increased fuel load and record high temperatures in early February made for prime bushfire conditions. Strong winds, predicted to swing 90 degrees in the afternoon, had the potential to turn the narrowest, most predictable corridor of fire into a deadly smear.

It happened almost exactly as predicted. Many who went to bed on Saturday night harbouring images of large but benign bushfires awoke on Sunday to learn that the fires had swung abruptly and turned deadly. Towns such as Kinglake and Marysville, along with many of their residents, had been destroyed by the roaring onslaught.

Carefully paced and constructed, Forecast For Disaster plays out like a Hollywood thriller. It is horrifying, but compelling viewing. It stands as an important document of this charred chapter of Australian history.

It also stands as a reminder of the need for ongoing support for the survivors as they rebuild — their needs don't dissipate as the events fade into memory. And it raises questions regarding the adequacy of individual, communal and government responses to the impending disaster, given the veracity of the warning signs.

The answers to such questions are for the Royal Commission to determine. More challenging is the question of whether in fact there is such a thing an adequate response when nature conspires to let loose an event of such magnitude.

If there are lessons to be learnt from Black Saturday, we should learn them well. The evidence, as highlighted by Forecast For Disaster, is that with the advancement of climate change and its impact on environment and weather patterns, the Black Saturday mega-fires are not the last we will see.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: tim kroenert, weather channel, forecast for disaster, black saturday, victorian bushfires



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Existing comments

The documentary "Forecast for Disaster" told the weather of Black Saturday story powerfully. Various computer models predicted the wind, humidity and temperature several days in advance. To complete your picture, the Bureau of Meteorology was so concerned that the Victorian Regional Director and CFA Chief Officer conducted an urgent press conference on Wednesday 4 Feb. There was a fire weather meteorologist focussed full time for weeks on providing updated information and another Bureau meteorologists on duty at the Incident Control Centre.

The Bureau has statutory responsibility to provide warnings of severe weather including fire weather. Before retiring, I had national responsibility for the Bureau's weather service, and can comment that weather and climate forecasters have a strong sense of the public good. I personally have a strong commitment to the values that Eureka Street stands for.

Peter Noar | 29 May 2009


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