Bushfires And Bureaucrats

fireWhen people drown we ask, ‘Did they swim outside the flags?’ When there has been a road accident, we ask, ‘Were they speeding?’ ‘Were they over .05?’ When there has been an ordinary house fire, we ask, ‘Did they have a smoke alarm?’

We need to ask of bushfire deaths, injuries and home losses, the questions we do of others:  ‘Could victims have avoided their loss?’ Had those who died defending their homes, or evacuating from them, learned how to do so safely? Had they worn protective clothing – or shorts and singlets and thongs and summer dresses? Had they worn a smoke mask? Kept themselves hydrated by drinking enough water? Had they confined their defence to dousing embers near the house, or had they approached the flame front?

Had those who died sheltering obeyed the rules for safe sheltering? Were they in an inner room – or by a exit door to the outside? Had protective clothing, or even a pure wool blanket?

Had those whose evacuated homes burned, done everything to leave them as secure as possible from ember ignition? Removed vegetation from against windows and flammable cladding? Minimized flammable plants in their garden? Exchanged chip-bark mulch for a fire resistant type? Protected windows? Covered subfloor gaps? Cleaned out and insulated the roof void and subfloor? Closed internal doors before leaving?

Why had others who defended their homes, managed this safely? Every member of the well-prepared and practiced members of householder Community Fireguard Groups led by Dawn Hartog at Kinglake[i] and Cheryl Phillips at Kinglake Ranges[ii] saved their homes on Black Saturday. The tiny twenty-resident town of Walhalla, deep in a confined valley in Victoria’s mountainous ranges and adjoining the Baw Baw National Park, preserved their town.

When inattentive drivers smash their cars, they are regarded as having contributed to their loss. If  storm water badly damages a house, and the owners have not maintained their gutters or downpipes; when a householder falls asleep smoking in bed and through their inattention, the house burns down, their contributory negligence reduces the insurance payout.

But when houses are destroyed during bushfire – even when the owners have not bothered to reduce the flammable vegetation around it – who attributes contributory negligence?

Every post-bushfire investigation has shown that almost every tragedy has been contributed to by those affected. This is a harsh statement. But true.

It is also true that such tragedies have been contributed to by victims’ neglectful neighbours who had not reduced their flammable vegetation, by restrictive local councils who do not allow this, by municipal and statutory bodies who neglect this chore on their own lands, and by environmental groups who encourage highly flammable native vegetation to be laid close around houses. Like kindling set for a pyre.

Electricity companies and arsonists and careless machinery workers may start bushfires, but they do not actually cause the injuries, loss of homes, and lives. The cause of the tragedies must be shared by, and attributed to, whoever has had input to them.

It is a sickening anomaly that more people were killed at or in their homes on Victoria’s  Black Saturday, February 7, 2009, than in any other bushfire. Historically, the majority of bushfire fatalities have happened during ill-timed evacuations[iii]. Because the 2009 toll was so different, assumptions were made: people died defending; therefore defending means death; people died ‘staying’, therefore staying means death.

Research for the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission into the causes of those fatalities by a team of bushfire scientists from the Bushfire Centre for Risk and Community (Bushfire CRC), led by Professor John Handmer[iv] into the causes of those fatalities found otherwise.

Key findings of their report were:

  •  Significant unawareness of the general fire risk among the fatalities.
  •  Some had been dismissive of the risk.
  •  A lack of appreciation that the drought-parched day of violent winds created extreme bushfire conditions.
  • Limited understanding of fire behaviour
    • Limited knowledge about what to do if bushfire threatened.
    • Inadequate planning.
    • Fire plans, of which nearly half the fatalities had some sort, were of ‘very variable quality and few comprehensive’.
    • Slow response to the danger. Many of the fatalities ‘had waited almost until the flames could be seen before acting’.
    • A failure of defenders ‘to realize that active patrolling for embers and ignitions was needed at all times’.
    • ‘Fundamental misconception about bushfire safety were common, e.g. that bathrooms provide a safe shelter’.
    • ‘Limited understanding about the security of buildings, bunkers and underhouse shelters’.

Details revealed that of  all fatalities[v]:

  • 70% left ‘no evidence of any kind of defence’.
  • 30% left ‘some evidence of fire-fighting defence’. Of these, 25% had been carrying out ‘questionable’ defence and only 5% actively defending.
  • 69% occurred while the people were sheltering.
  • 34% had sheltered in the house generally. Of this 34% almost all, (27%), were in the bathroom, 8% had sheltered outside in a shed, spa, bunker or outhouse.
  • 22% occurred outside. Of these 15.6% had been outside a house, 3% near cars, 3% on roadways, and 0.4% in open land reserves. Others died as a result of toxic gases in bunkers and other structures undamaged by fire[vi].
  • 30% had decided to evacuate, less than 1% of whom had a known destination or pre-arranged ‘trigger’ to go, 5% had a vague idea of a destination and a ‘trigger’ to go, and 14% were fleeing in cars or on foot, without suitable clothing.
  • 20% were deemed to be ‘well prepared’ (see qualifications below), and 14% to have made some preparations.
  • Very few had a comprehensive fire plan.
  • Many with fire plans had not thought them through clearly[vii].

The report did not cite the death of any able-bodied, thoroughly prepared, planned and practiced person who had followed recommended procedure while defending, sheltering, or evacuating.

This research does not align with the public messages put out by bushfire authorities that: ‘No matter how well you prepare and how well-resourced property, if you live in a high-risk area … your home will not be defendable on a Code Red day’[viii]. It showed that most victims (80%) were neither well prepared nor resourced in the usual understanding of the terms.

‘Well prepared’ has (as the report pointed out) usually been understood to mean ‘adequate reduction of flammable vegetation around the property, work on the house to minimize ember entry, having fire-fighting gear and protective clothing, an independent water supply with the apparatus to utilize it’ – and a well-informed knowledge of what to do, and when.

Definitions of  ‘preparation’ given in the Bushfire CRC research brief were[ix]:

  • ‘Some preparedness’: troughs or buckets and mops around the property and appropriate clothing.
  • ‘Preparation’ appropriate activity before 1.30pm on Saturday February 7 (when the Hume Highway was closed by out of control fire).
  • ‘Well prepared’: fuel management around the property, buckets and mops, an independent water supply (dam, tank, pool or creek) with gravity fed water supply or connected diesel or petrol pump, (or electric pump connected to a generator).

The ‘well prepared’ rating, however, had a value-reducing flaw. The report found ‘serious weaknesses in the fire-fighting plans of many householders classified as “well prepared” ’[x] undermines official assertions that the thoroughness of preparation gives home defenders little surety of remaining alive. Victims’ otherwise considerable prior preparations had been thwarted by basic defaults and oversights. Low water supply, water supply transported through unburied plastic pipes; pumps unprotected, not working properly, on wooden platforms that caught fire, or roofs blowing off before the fire front arrived, allowing massive ember entry.

These straws that broke the camel’s back of  seemingly good preparation could have been avoided with fuller knowledge. Knowledge readily available to any who sought it. By having metal rather than plastic tanks, an alternative water supply ready in troughs, buckets and baths, and roofs secured with cyclone clips.

The research shows that it was not simply the fact of staying with, nor of defending, homes that caused the 2009 bushfire associated deaths. It was a lack of  knowledge of how to sufficiently prepare for, and safely react to, a bushfire – and in many cases, doing very foolish things. In most other types of tragedy, this would be regarded as contributory negligence.

Bushfire authorities

 Bushfire authorities will need to consider whether their alarmist attitudes and panic-creating new policies could put them in the same category.

  • Whether their numinous but mind-numbing slogans (short, smart, devoid of safety detail) that can lead to mass misunderstandings and official misdirection, are too clever for their own and the public good. Whether they provide the little learning that can lead to dangerous situations.
  • Whether, fortified as these have been by terrorising advertisements of exploding houses, panicking families, and 800 degree temperatures during bushfires that are as untrue are unhelpful, they could be frightening people to death-causing actions.

A CFA ‘Leave and Live’ television advertisement aimed at residents of rural towns to warn of the danger of ‘staying’ spells out in large letters  ‘TEMPERATURES CAN REACH 800 DEGREES DURING A BUSHFIRE’. What message will viewers take from this?  Most conclude that during a bushfire this is how hot the temperature can become in their town, around their home. And so there’s nothing they can do but Leave and Live.

This is the temperature inside a flame.  At the core of a fire front. Temperatures deep within the flames of burning dry eucalypt forests have been verified by bushfire scientists as 1100C maximum near the flames’ base, and 300C minimum at the flames’ tip[xi]. Yet the advertisement implies, and people are taking from it,  that home defenders: ‘stayers’, could be subjected to this type of heat. To experience 800C during a bushfire, they would have to walk into the fire front.

If it was true that during a bushfire air temperature can reach an air temperature of 800 degrees, no one who stayed at Kinglake or Marysville during that worst of worst bushfires, Black Saturday 2009, would have been left alive.  All those who ‘sheltered’ on the sports ground would been cremated. No building would have remained.

Home defence is about dousing falling embers that fall near the house, not immersing oneself in dense flames. What, or who, is served by such a misleadingly distortion?

Bushfire authorities will need to consider whether conundrums such as: ‘No matter how well you prepare, if you live in a high-risk area your home … will not be defendable on a Code Red day’[xii] and  ‘Shelter options may include a well-prepared home (yours or a neighbour) that you can actively defend’ [xiii] [xiv] constitutes negligence that could contribute to public confusion, indecision and catastrophe.

Bushfire authorities will need to look with more perception at their call for ‘all residents of high-risk areas’ to ‘leave the night before or early on a Code Red/Catastrophic day’ to stay with ‘family and friends who live outside the risk area’. And their ingenuous suggestion for those who lack the convenience of such kith and kin to shelter in ‘community facilities such as libraries, shopping centres, swimming pools or cinemas’. Should not those responsible for preparing information publications on the welfare of rural people, during rural bushfires, have at least a fairly basic understanding of  rural life?  Of the prevalence of small rural village where, typically, family and friends were all born and live in the same area. Areas so rural that they have no ‘bushfire-safe’ library, shopping centre, swimming pool or cinema.

A good lawyer could well argue this assumptive advice is negligent in its considerations and could contribute to residents’ equivocation and the uncertainty of action at the root of late-evacuation deaths.

The current Leave and Live policy is justified by the observation of its creators that ‘If you are not in the path of a bushfire when it arrives, you will not be killed by it’. That ‘the only way to be absolutely safe during a bushfire event is not to be there’[xv]. We could say of the road toll, too, ‘if you are not in a car you will not be killed in a car smash’. But is there a Walk and Live or a Stay home and Live campaign to avoid death from being in a motor vehicle? No.

Authorities will need to ask, ‘Could we be wrong?’ They now believe they were wrong with their pre-2009 message, ‘Stay and defend or leave early’. If they can be wrong once, they can be wrong again.

In classifying days of potential bushfire danger as ‘Mild’, ‘Severe’, ‘Extreme’ and Code Red/Catastrophic, it is made clear to residents that, if well-prepared, home defence can be safe and successful on the first three types. That only on days designated Code Red/Catastrophic, must they be gone. Early. And that only at such times would evacuations be ordered.

But this is not what some authorities are doing. At the Western Australian Perth Hills fire of January 14, active home defenders were ordered by emergency services to leave their homes to their fate[xvi]. During the January 18 Grampians bushfires, as fire approached their town, the whole population of Halls Gap was ordered to evacuate and to travel 27 kilometres along a bush-lined road to the larger town of Stawell[xvii]. This was an historic first. Never before in Australia had an evacuation order been given to a whole town[xviii].

In New South Wales, on February 8, with a 1,211 hectare forest fire burning out of control for six days near Cooma, and the air temperature around 36 degrees[xix] firefighters went around door knocking residents telling them to leave[xx]. February 9 was not a Code Red Day. It was certainly a horrible day. Temperatures above 41 C, wind gusts up to 100 kilometres per hour and 150 fast-moving fires throughout Victoria. Danger classification: Extreme. Not Code Red. Nevertheless, an evacuation notice was issued for several East Gippsland towns. So, as an out-of-control fire in the Snowy River National Park threatened, they were directed to drive to the larger Orbost[xxi]. Families whose properties were under threat from the Mickleham/Kilmore grass-based fires, which burned for days from Sunday, February 10, were evacuated and re-evacuated ‘when the fire threat was imminent’[xxii].

To travel in the heat and at the hottest time of the day, winds howling, air arid, with the risk of embers starting spot fires on their route . Whole towns-full. Everybody out! Days later, the ousted Gippsland and Kilmore residents were still out. Not allowed back to check if homes could still be saved from post-front embers (a pre-2009 routine recommendation), to feed stock, nor attend to injured animals.

During heat wave of February, 2009, 374 died of heat stress. Less than half, 173, died in the bushfire zones. During recent heat wave of January 13-18, 2014, 203 people died of heat stress.

Not everyone has ‘Family or friends in a low fire risk area’[xxiii], particularly those with whom they (and their pets) could stay for months, years, while awaiting new housing. Not everyone has cars; not everyone with a car has air conditioning; more people than authorities care to think about have only motorbikes, or bicycles – or Shank’s pony. Officially forced into the option with the highest odds of resulting in death. Outside, in the heat.

And to where? To Neighbourhood Safer Places? Which, though titled thus by their Royal Commission instigator, are a contradiction in terms, being defined by it thus: ‘They cannot be considered, nor should they be described as, “safe”’ [xxiv] [xxv]. To the most ubiquitous of these – an unsheltered sports ground, where they’ll sit in the heat and wind, exposed to falling ash and embers? To a local hall which may not be as safe as their own home? To a shadeless car park, baking on the bitumen? To the footpath flanking a small shopping street?  (the NSP of central Victorian goldfields town, Castlemaine).

Or to another town from which they may have to be moved when it, too, becomes threatened. Crammed together in their evacuation vehicles, hot and scared and sweaty; with as many elderly, frail, small children, pets and precious possessions they can fit in. In convoy. It only takes one car to stall and the lot is stuck.

There will come a time when such policy implementations will become a farce as black as the forest, as the remains of homes, as the bodies in burnt cars. There only has to be mass evacuation orders given on a day with multiple fires burning in the area, when a spot fire falls ahead of a convoy of evacuees, trapping hundreds, when it will be the cause of an incalculable catastrophe.

Is authorities’ focus so narrow they cannot envisage these scenarios?

These attitudes and actions can create situations that put householders’ lives at greater hazard than by following safe defending or sheltering procedure, and which are almost destined to leave them homeless.  With no residents there to douse the embers falling in gardens and on vulnerable aspects of their homes, of course they’ll burn down. Almost every news picture of structures burning and/or destroyed  during the February 9 fires (as is usual) showed the cause to be ember entry. Not ‘sweeping flames’. Surrounding trees were untouched.

Those who suffered these losses could well ask: had authorities spent the time and money on advising  how to safely save their properties, instead of frightening them into leaving them to unhindered ember attack would they still be living in their loved homes?

Bushfire authorities seem to be afraid that they will be sued if someone dies because they defend their home. Legal advisors should consider whether their corporate clients may be exposed to damages suits for unnecessarily exacerbating the loss of homes and the already critical public housing waiting list. Whether they could be liable for ordering people into entrapment by spot fires, or death by heat stress because they urged everybody out.

Questions must be asked, whether authorities could be guilty of contributory negligence to the losses and tragedies of a trusting populace.

Also in danger of the same risk are those who framed the post 2009 regulations for building regulations, which have some extraordinary omissions and inclusions, cannot be relied upon to provide for bushfire safety, and create a dangerous sense of security in bushland home builders. [xxvi] They:

  • Fail to require ‘cathedral’ ceilings to eliminate a roof/ceiling space which, with windows, is the most vulnerable aspect of a house and most likely to be the source of house destruction during bushfire.
  • stipulate brick cladding. Look at all the brick houses destroyed in every bushfire!
    • approve brick veneer for the worst danger categories, which has a wall cavity up  which flames can race.
    • ban timber cladding, known to be vulnerable for only a metre up from ground level.
      • stipulate ‘fire retardant’ timber. Which is pointless: the greatest danger to houses does not come from flame ignition, but from ember entry.
      • stipulate metal frames, known to buckle under intense heat.
      • ignore internal wall linings though, when ignited, many give off toxic gases
      • do not debar polyurethane for insulation – a killer  that gives off cyanide gas within 30 seconds of smouldering
      • ignore the composition of water tanks – though on Black Saturday melted plastic tanks were everywhere.

Most farcical of all, they designate a site category as the ‘flame zone’. To allow home building anywhere near a ‘flame zone’ is homicidal. Any building regulating authority that:

  • ignores the prime danger of the roof/ceiling space
  • states that brick cladding and metal frames give protection during bushfire, and
  • allows homes to be built so close to a forest as to be in reach of its flames

should be charged with culpable negligence.

The Bushfire Safety Policy Framework states that ‘in extreme or Code Red conditions in heavily forested areas, homes are simply not built to withstand the passage of a bushfire’,

If this is so, how was it that two-thirds of houses in the 2009 firegrounds did ‘withstand’ the Code Red conditions? ‘Withstand’ is an odd word to use. Construction detail is an important, but not the main, aspect of house survival. Vegetation management; ember-protective modifications to ceiling space, windows and subfloor; and the bushfire safety knowledge of householders, have been proved over and again to be of more consequence.

These regulations further the false beliefs:

  • that because timber burns and brick does not, a brick-clad home is safer than one of timber.
  • that the danger to houses during bushfire comes from the linear outreach of flames igniting cladding;
  • that houses burn down sequentially from cladding, to frame, to interior.

Brick walls and metal frames will make little, if any, difference to the safety of houses during a bushfire.

It is not the linear movement of a bushfire’s flames that reduce houses to a few centimetres of ash and twisted metal. It has been known sine 1944 that the vast majority of houses destroyed during bushfire have been ignited internally from ember penetration and burned from the inside outwards. Not the cladding, but the contents. The frame and cladding burn last.

The post-2009 building regulations for bushfire prone areas ignore proven scientific research findings consistent over 60 years. The 1983 post-Ash Wednesday investigations were, and still are, the biggest and most thorough that have been held anywhere in the world.

A team of investigators led by Dr Caird Ramsay, director of CSIRO’s Division of Building Research, examined 1163 houses and sites in south western Victoria’s Otway Ranges where 720 houses had been destroyed and 443 hardly touched[xxvii]. Every house in the fire zone. Burnt, unburnt, and partly burnt.  Their brief: to discover why one house could be left a pile of ash and its neighbour intact. Flame marks showed on hardly any of the partly burnt houses. Where cladding had been scorched, it was because flammable plants had been growing beside it, or burning debris blown onto against flammable base boards.

Many houses had not flared up until long after the fire front had passed. Flames could not have caused their ignition. Investigators were unanimous that cladding materials do not of themselves give bushfire protection. They confirmed definitively that houses are burned from the inside when sparks and embers enter and burn on through house contents.

Most heartening was their discovery that 90 per cent of homes had been saved when defended by one or more people over the age of ten who knew what to do, and all homes with three or four defenders.

Questions must be asked: why has the knowledge obtained from this research been discarded? Why has the knowledge obtained from the post-2009 research not been disseminated?

There is an ancient fable called The Emperor’s New Clothes.  Two unprincipled servants dress an emperor in what they claim to be the finest, best suit of clothes, made from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position.

For the sake of their positions, the emperor and his ministers pretend that they can see these wonderful clothes. When the emperor parades before the populace in his specially made new clothes, it takes unmaterialistic observation of a child to speak up and exclaim ‘But he isn’t wearing anything at all!’


We need to ask:

Are our powerful bureaucracies actually providing dignity and protection for the bushfire-vulnerable public body?

Or do their expensively dressed new policies do no more  than display an illusion?

Are they the emperor’s new clothes?

Are our figurative courtiers, king and crowd, collectively contributing to a future catastrophe by their negligence of blind faith, unawareness, and being afraid to question.


Joan Webster OAM is the author of The Complete Bushfire Safety Book(Random House) and Essential Bushfire Safety Tips (CSIRO). Like her on Bushfire Safety Page  at Facebook or visit her blog at www.bushfiresafety.blogspot.com.au 

[i] The Fireman journal, 2014-03-2009, page 6 http://www.thefireman.com.au/

[ii] Cheryl Phillips, Kinglake Ranges

[iii] Haynes, Tibbits, Coates, Ganewatta and Handmer, 100 years of Australian civilian bushfire fatalities: Report for the Bushfire CRC (2008) http://www.bushfirecrc.com/news/news-item/100-years-stay-or-go

[iv] John Handmer, Saffron O’Neil and Damien Killalea, Review of fatalities in the February 7, 2009, bushfires, Final Report. Prepared for the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission April 2010 (Bushfire CRC Centre for Risk and Community, 13 April 2010) page 6-7 http://www.bushfirecrc.com/managed/resource/review-fatalities-february-7.pdf

[v] John Handmer, Saffron O’Neil and Damien Killalea, Review of fatalities in the February 7, 2009, bushfires, Final Report. Prepared for the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission April 2010 (Bushfire CRC Centre for Risk and Community, 13 April 2010.) http://www.bushfirecrc.com/managed/resource/review-fatalities-february-7.pdf

[vi] John Handmer, Saffron O’Neil and Damien Killalea, Review of fatalities in the February 7, 2009, bushfires, Final Report. Prepared for the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission April 2010 (Bushfire CRC Centre for Risk and Community, 13 April 2010) page 7 http://www.bushfirecrc.com/managed/resource/review-fatalities-february-7.pdf

[vii] John Handmer, Saffron O’Neil and Damien Killalea, Review of fatalities in the February 7, 2009, bushfires, Final Report. Prepared for the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission April 2010 (Bushfire CRC Centre for Risk and Community, 13 April 2010) page 20

[viii] Victorian State Bushfire Safety Policy Framework, set by the Fire Services Commissioner.


[ix] John Handmer, Saffron O’Neil and Damien Killalea, Review of fatalities in the February 7, 2009, bushfires, Final Report. Prepared for the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission April 2010 (Bushfire CRC Centre for Risk and Community, 13 April 2010) page 17 http://www.bushfirecrc.com/managed/resource/review-fatalities-february-7.pdf

[x] John Handmer, Saffron O’Neil and Damien Killalea, Review of fatalities in the February 7, 2009, bushfires, Final Report. Prepared for the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission April 2010 (Bushfire CRC Centre for Risk and Community, 13 April 2010) page 7, 20 http://www.bushfirecrc.com/managed/resource/review-fatalities-february-7.pdf

[xi] Mike Wotton, James S. Gould, W. Lachlan McCaw, N. Phillip Cheney and Stephen W. Taylor, Flame temperature and residence time of fires in dry eucalypt forest (International Journal of Wildland Fire 2011)


[xii] CFA Fire Ready Kit Complete, Section Five, ‘Defending your property’ – Your Bushfire Survival Plan – Property Protection’ page 4 http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare/fire-ready-kit/

[xiii] CFA Fire Ready Kit Complete, Section Five, ‘Defending your property’ – Your Bushfire Survival Plan’, page 11 http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/fm_files/attachments/plan_and_prepare/frk/prepare-for-bushfire.pdf

[xv] Craig Lapsley, Fire Services Commissioner, Age Opinion article, Bushfire plan must reflect reality, January 22, 2014  http://fire-com-live-wp.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/Opinion-Piece-Op-Ed-Craig-Lapsley-Bushfire-plan-must-reflect-reality.pdf

[xvi] ABC TV news transcript, Warnings of ‘hot zone’ fire risk in Perth Hills, 15 Jan 2014. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-15/warnings-of-hot-zone-fire-risk-in-perth-hills/5200800?section=wa

[xvii] Craig Lapsley, Fire Services Commissioner, Age Opinion article, Bushfire plan must reflect reality, January 22, 2014  http://fire-com-live-wp.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/Opinion-Piece-Op-Ed-Craig-Lapsley-Bushfire-plan-must-reflect-reality.pdf

[xviii] First time this has been ordered in Australia (Steve Warrington, video lecture 2014-02-06) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ho1pN8S9Rvs

[xxiv] Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Final Report, Volume II, Part I, 1.8.6, (p.209)


[xxv] Neighbourhood Safer Places, Places of Last Resort During a Bushfire: Interim Assessment Guideline (2009/10 Fire Season). http://www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au/getdoc/c8233759-c370-459f-af88-76eb7721a167/RESP.3001.001.0127

[xxvii] How bushfires set houses alight: lessons from Ash Wednesday http://www.ecosmagazine.com/?paper=EC43p3#sthash.aZdX2Xr2.dpuf


1 comment
  • Geoffrey Luck

    AND NOT BEFORE TIME! There has been a conspiracy of silence to protect the vested interests which have built an industry out of pretending that Australia has competent professional bushfire services for their protection. What we have, rather, is a bureaucratic cottage industry, ill-equipped and incompetent to save the lives and homes it pretends to protect. It is about time that the public realised that all these red trucks and yellow-suited volunteers rushing about don’t go off the road; they cannot and do not save anything or anybody. The recent Victorian fires proved that the authorities could not save homes, and played safe on lives by ordering mass evacuations. Appallingly, police were used to enforce these orders and man road blocks to prevent owners returning to their properties long after the fire had passed. The entire system runs on emotionalism – praise for the heroes of the volunteer service; terror and panic incited by the type of statements cited above; the ritual weeping and gnashing of teeth at loss in the aftermath of a fire – with the media contributing to the mythology by unstinting support for each of these phases.

    Nobody seems willing to face the fact that many homes have been built in deep bush in fire-prone areas by people seeking cheaper land as well as a tree-ey lifestyle, yet have been either too impecunious, too lousy or too stupid to prepare their homes and properties against the certain danger. How many installed adequate protected water systems with rooftop sprinklers to defeat ember attack?

    The present systems do not seem capable of even collecting and co-ordinating valid information about fires and their movement. Pious statements by uniformed “controllers” to eager television presenters give an entirely false impression of their ability to control anything. Yet the message should be clear: “You are on your own, we cannot rescue you and certainly can’t save your home.” That’s what’s behind all the weasel words so dutifully repeated on the news mean. “Back burning”; “fire breaks”; and the most wickedly misleading of all – “control lines” – all these are just hot air.

    When will some authority have the guts to get the productivity Commission to report on the efficiency of these costly rural fire services?

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