Strategies for a new era of firestorms


Burn Last Tuesday Radio National's Fran Kelly interviewed Russell Rees, head of the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA), following the Interim Report of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (VBRC). She had that morally righteous tone that journalists get when they want someone to confess and admit fault.

Rees had certainly taken a shellacking from Jack Rush QC, counsel assisting the VBRC, about his performance on Black Saturday when he gave evidence to the Commission.

Although he took his medicine from Rush, Rees certainly didn't cop it sweet from Kelly. He gave as good as he got and refused to accept blame.

He pointed out, for instance, that the CFA successfully suppressed an extremely dangerous fire on Black Saturday afternoon in Upper Fern Tree Gully, just below Mount Dandenong. If the fire had got onto the quite heavily populated mountain many would have been killed and tremendous environmental damage done.

He reminded Kelly that no one could have imagined a fire like Black Saturday. As the VBRC itself admitted, 'Reports referred to flames leaping 100 m into the air, generating heat so intense that aluminium road signs melted. The plume of fires created a convection effect that generated winds so strong that trees appeared to have been screwed from the ground.' Fire behavior was described as 'unique'.

While historically this is not entirely true, we have certainly entered a new era of fire in Australia. Never before have we seen such concentrated velocity, fire intensity and spotting occurring so far ahead of the main front. So Rees was right to refuse to accept the kind of generalised blame that is often projected onto public officials (or environmentalists) by some in the community.

That is not to say that the performance of the authorities was perfect or even adequate. There were many mistakes made and the VBRC points them out. The communication system was completely inadequate, and centralised fire control in Melbourne was simply unable to cope with such a fast-moving situation. Controllers were far behind reality on the ground. More authority has to be given to local fire-fighters in the field.

How to forewarn the public is another problem. The VBRC heard that the maximum number on the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index is 100. Over 50 is considered 'extreme'. On 7 February it reached 'previously unrecorded levels ranging from 120 to 180'. It is hard to convey to people something that has never been experienced before.

The VBRC makes a number of recommendations, but warning the public about impending danger is a devilishly difficult thing to get right. Somehow you have to find the balance between panic and disinterest.

On the 'stay or go' policy the VBRC wisely warns that recently 'there has been insufficient emphasis on the risks of staying and defending'. Only those who are properly prepared and strong in body and mind should stay behind to defend a residence.

But making a decision about this presupposes that ample warning has been or even can be given. With fast-moving, unpredictable fires that is not always possible. The last thing you need is a panic evacuation. The VBRC wisely notes that properties need to be assessed well in advance, but that people should not be forced to relocate.

Nevertheless some properties are indefensible and this needs to be acknowledged. Where defense is possible, 'not all houses are defensible in all situations, and contingencies need to be considered in case the plan to stay and defend fails'. All this illustrates the difficulty of generalising. A number of variables need to be taken into consideration in making decisions about staying or going and the VBRC correctly refuses to make binding rules for people.

As a fall-back position the VBRC calls for designated local community fire refuge areas to which people can retreat when all else fails. But even this is not as simple as it sounds. It would and did work in the compact town of Marysville, but it wouldn't work in Kinglake, strung out as it is along a ten kilometre-long escarpment with a single road running along the top. People might well have to go through the fire to get to a refuge.

Interestingly the VBRC makes no comment about preventative burning. This is mantra that is enunciated by a certain element in the community after every fire, but the simple fact is that all the preventative burning in the world would not have stopped the Black Saturday fire or even lessened its intensity.

The aim of this interim report is to make recommendations that can be implemented for the 2009–2010 fire season. The commissioners avoid what might be called the 'bigger fire questions'. But in the end these will have to be faced, especially as the impact of global warming hits us.

Paul Collins A new edition of Paul Collins' book Burn comes out next month from Scribe Publications.


Topic tags: Victorian Bushfires, Royal Commission, Country Fire Authority, CFA, Russell Rees, Interim Report



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Existing comments

There hasn't been enough attention to the air temperature on Black Saturday. At 45 degrees eucalyptus oil evaporates into the air at sufficient concentration to make the air inflammable. On a day when the Melbourne forecast is near that, people living in forested areas should recognise that our fire services will be outgunned, and go elsewhere overnight.
Michael Grounds | 21 August 2009

Thanks, Paul. 'Lessons fron the Ashes', The Age 15 February 2009, by Michael Bachelard and Melissa Fyfe,
was an insightful early assessment of causes of the Black Saturday disaster. The authors, I believe rightly, put large weight on climate change factors in building the intensity of these fires. They cited powerful official sources and meteorological data in support. They wrote that the Royal Commission would report on the role that climate change had played in these fires.

But so far, oddly, there has been nothing said publicly on this, either from the Commission or from Premier Brumby. Perhaps Australian governments are not keen to highlight the very strong evidence of links between the fires and global warming, given their support of policies that are contributing to global warming? The media should not let governments off the hook on this. There is an important connection, which needs to be properly exposed for public discussion, not buried in the paperwork.

tony kevin | 21 August 2009

I believe that the most important issue to arise from last February's black Saturday bush fires is that people who live in a bush environment near a city should be more diligent in preparing their property for a bush fire. They also should have an effective fire plan. I also believe that there is a significant number of people who relocate from a city environment to a low density bush environment do not have a good knowledge and understanding of the ecology of the bush. Unfortunately, a lot of the people who were either killed or injured did not have an effective fire plan and panicked and subsequently suffered from the radiant heat. I also believe that a lot of people did not heed the Weather Bureau warnings of the previous week for extreme heat and dangerous winds. We had a significant warning on Thursday 31st January with 45 degrees and a break down of electricity distribution. Also, we should not be blaming public officials and climate change for these fires. Media people such as Fran Kelly are only interested in a cheap headline. I have friends who live near St.Andrews and Healesville whose properties both survived. Both these properties are five acres and are kept very clean and do not have eucalyptus or pine trees. They both only have medium size deciduous trees and native bushes which are low inflammable. Also, both families moved away for that black Saturday weekend. I also remember Rob DeCastella's comments after the Canberra fires of 2003 when his family home was destroyed. He was pleased that his family was holidaying on the south coast of NSW and they did not have to live through the stress of seeing their house destroyed. We should also remember the generosity of people everywhere for giving to the Red Cross appeal and volunteers who have assisted affected communities.
Mark Doyle | 21 August 2009

At long last we have a well balanced and well argued commentary on the C.F.A's performance in unprecedented difficult circumstances.Clearly, in retrospect, there were many deficiencies and some serious errors of judgement and these need to be recognised and, so far as is possible, addressed so that recurrences are minimized.How to do this in the limited time available before the next bush fire season is another matter. Great care and objectivity will be needed.

In recent days the public has been subjected to too many self righteous and at times aggressive attacks by radio journalists on individual members of the CFA: these have been unreasonable and certainly most unhelpful from everyone's point of view.
David | 21 August 2009

The most important 'lesson' that should have been learned from these fires is that development and rebuilding in these inherently fireprone areas must be stopped! We've known for decades that Victoria has some of the most fireprone bushland in the world and we've done nothing about it. Not only is it absurd to build in these areas but development also destroys many natural values: habitat for animals, catchment protection, the scenery itself. It will all just happen again and the longer the time interval, the worse the destruction and loss of life will be.
Jim Williams | 04 March 2011


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