Us Victorians are accustomed to our annual bushfire season when it is not uncommon for hundreds of thousands if not millions of hectares of forest to be burnt out and then rejuvenate as part of their natural systems that have evolved over millions of years.
For the most part, Victorians living in the areas at risk are generally well prepared and have been encouraged to remain and defend their homes from ember attack during such fires, or evacuate early.
But it seems climate change through its increase in extreme weather conditions may have changed all that – a 12 year drought, some nice rains in December 2008 to spur on plant growth, almost zero rain the following month culminating in a record heat wave of 3 days in a row exceeding 43degC which made the state tinder dry and at risk.
Then just a week later, the final ingredient to make the perfect firestorm – a record amazingly hot 46-47.9deg Saturday with 80-100kph north winds and careless, thoughtless or worse, homicidal humans allowing or intentionally starting fires at the peak of these conditions.
The resulting firestorms traveling at 40-50kph gave authorities little chance to warn the locals who were caught by surprise, too late to evacuate and the extreme conditions meant few houses in its path were defensible.
To survive meant either:
- evacuating before the fires started – just because it was an extreme danger day, or staying and either:
- having a fireproof bunker or cellar
- luck combined with a good sense of timing to get out of the burning house just before its roof caved in but sufficiently long after the fire front had passed that radiant heat outside was not lethal – a must read graphic story of a lucky escape
- getting into a car in a clearing well away from the radiant heat of the fires and which was not going to catch on fire from nearby trees or tall grass
- access to a wide open space such as a sports oval giving sufficient distance from the radiant heat and having protective clothing or woolen blankets
Those who in panic tried to flee at the last minute in cars appear to have died – roads blocked by falling trees and power lines, the zero visibility causing head on collisions with other cars or trees, the nearby trees just causing too much radiant heat and ember attack.
Most of those attempting to defend their homes in the path without a backup found the severity of the ember attack and the fire balls impossible to contend with and only a lucky few of these survived.
Relying on communications to warn of the dangers proved unreliable as it seems:
- the authorities were not aware of raging rapidly moving new firestorms even that which devastated Kinglake until it was too late to warn people
- the two way radio, mobile phone systems and internet websites were all flooded with activity making access to reliable information difficult
- the ABC radio station, whilst proving perhaps to be the best communication still could only warn of the threats the authorities were aware
The Victorian government has announced a Royal commission into the fires and what can be done to minimise the lives lost next time – after all this was no where near our biggest fires but it was by far our most fatal due to its ferocity and speed combined with a sudden, lethal wind direction change from the cool change.
It would seem too late now for humanity to stop climate change and untimely economic events combined with human greed are likely to postpone any real efforts directed towards this, and thus extreme events in weather is something we will all need to learn to live with or die.
It is clear we will not be able to defend homes in such firestorms and such firestorms are likely to increase in frequency.
I doubt that people will leave their homes in these areas just because it is a extreme fire risk day – this would expose even further risk to the activities of arsonists and sociopaths.
We need to consider the wisdom of living in high fire risk regions or at least consider mandating fire bunkers or cellars be built and maintained for each house - just having a community facility is unlikely to help as these fires showed – people may not have time or access to get to them.
We need to improve warning systems – perhaps a National Early Warning System using text messages sent to all mobile phones as has been suggested.
We need to realise that fire fighters cannot control large firestorms and that these in general will keep burning until they burn out.
The Victorian government gave the best advice the day before the fires when it was aware of the extreme fire risk conditions for that day – if you don’t need to be in the bush and forests, don’t be there – it is not the day to go touring around.
And finally, we should never take that which we have for granted – for all too quickly, it can be taken away.
See my brief history of Victorian bushfires here.