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Bushfires can occur year round: we have to be prepared

Yesterday’s fires in Sydney’s western outskirts are a timely warning for all Australian communities. Being prepared for a bushfire is not just a summer job – communities in bushfire prone areas, and in…

We can’t wait until summer to be ready for fires and other natural hazards. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Yesterday’s fires in Sydney’s western outskirts are a timely warning for all Australian communities. Being prepared for a bushfire is not just a summer job – communities in bushfire prone areas, and in the ever-expanding urban/rural interface surrounding our cities and major towns, need to be prepared 12 months of the year.

When the conditions are right, hot and windy days, with dry vegetation, fires will occur. They are a fact of life in the environment we live in. We all must be vigilant about our local conditions.

An earlier fire season?

While summer is usually the time associated with the highest bushfire risk in the southern states across Australia, bushfire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer.

With these longer fire seasons, fire agencies need to continually refine the education and warning messages for communities in fire prone areas. Much of the new research into bushfires is now about how best to keep communities educated and informed about these changing and evolving circumstances.

Seasonal outlooks help Australia plan for fire season. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Part of this is the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre seasonal bushfire outlooks. Every year since 2006, before the northern and southern Australian fire seasons, the Bushfire CRC has brought together fire managers from all states and territories with Bureau of Meteorology scientists to produce seasonal bushfire outlooks for the relevant fire season. The seasonal outlooks are a useful insight for fire and land management agencies about the expected fire season, so they can plan accordingly.

What’s the outlook?

Broadly, there are two fire seasons in Australia – northern and southern fire seasons. Across northern Australia, the fire season coincides with the northern dry season during winter. In southern Australia, the fire season begins later in the year, in the lead up to, and including, summer. Depending on the location and conditions experienced, southern Australia’s fire season can run through to March or April.

Bushfire CRC seasonal bushfire outlook. Bushfire CRC

Last week the Bushfire CRC released the Southern Australia Seasonal Bushfire Outlook for this fire season. You can see from the map above that large areas of southern Australia, especially along the east and west coasts extending inland, face above normal fire potential for this fire season.

This above normal forecast is due to abundant grass growth across inland Australia, as a result of above average rainfall between May and July 2013. Grass fuels grow quickly, and this short burst of above average rainfall across inland Australia, coupled with above average temperatures across the country since January 2013, has been enough for the above normal bushfire potential to be declared.

In forested areas, a combination of factors, such as Australia’s hottest summer on record and above average temperatures over winter, has seen the bush begin to dry out.

How can we be prepared?

We know that bushfires will happen in Australia every year. But we also know from research on recent large fires that many people living in high risk bushfire areas are still under-prepared and ill-informed on the dangers and the preparations needed.

Changes to bushfire policies in the last decade have seen increased emphasis on early warning, focus on protection of human life over fighting the fires, the need for shared responsibility between official agencies and the community for bushfire safety, and the use of personal bushfire survival planning and protection areas around the home.

This week’s bushfires in NSW have taught us we don’t know everything about being prepared. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

This change in the way that bushfires, and indeed other hazards, are managed has been strengthened by the extensive and concerted research efforts. The psychological motivations and other reasons behind an individual’s decision to act or not to act in advance of a fire, sometimes despite their best intentions, is better understood by fire agencies applying the research.

The scope of work such this, so important in helping agencies communicate fire preparedness, has now been extended to include other natural hazards in Australia through the newly formed Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. There are many common areas between fire and other hazards. For example, with fire and flood, community issues are comparable, response issues and incident management are similar and recovery issues have many common threads.

The bushfires on Sydney’s urban/rural fringe yesterday, before the official, declared fire season in New South Wales, are another demonstration that we do not know everything about being prepared for emergencies. We need to urgently find new and better ways to help people understand what it means to live with threat of bushfire, flood, cyclone and other natural hazards, year round.

We need to ensure lessons are learnt from each event, and that policies and practices are changed, based on sound, scientific research, to safeguard the community. There is still a lot more to do.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. David Reid

    logged in via Twitter

    I find it strange that this article doesn't explicitly mention climate change as the reason for longer fire seasons. It seems like a major omission.

    1. Jeremy Culberg

      Electrical Asset Manager at Power Generation

      In reply to David Reid

      Given the political sensitivity of climate change, a simple statement of that bushfire season is starting earlier and going longer is objectively demonstrable (as it requires only historical data, and no need for projections into the future). Why bushfire season is starting earlier is a different debate.
      Whatever the cause, the fact that bushfire season is already upon us means that the education campaigns need to start sooner, the reminders for those of us living closer to bushfire hazards that having the clear zones around the house, having a good supply of firefighting water, having the panic bag packed (or 90% packed) is something we need to be considering now, and not in a month's time.
      It may even drive a change in building standards - much like we have cyclone ratings, it should be possible to design houses to be fire resistant. And on top of that, it should be possible to ensure that houses built to that standard have a lower insurance premium.

    2. Mark Poynter


      In reply to Jeremy Culberg


      Are you sure that bushfire seasons are starting earlier? Take a look at these newpaper headlines which I cut and pasted from a comment by Marc Hendrix on another post. They reflect my personal view that what has been seen over the past few days in NSW is not necessarily anything new..........

      1946...State wide heat, Bushfires. Sydney homes in Danger. SMH 13/9/1946
      1940...Heat in Sydney. The West Australian 9/9/1940
      1895...Drought and Bushfires The Advertiser Friday 13 September…

      Read more
  2. John Crest

    logged in via email

    When was the last time we had a bushfire in July?

  3. John Newlands

    tree changer

    A few minutes ago I had a chat with some council workers on the topic of fire escape routes. The setting was a laneway heavily overhung with wattles and aged eucalypts adjoining a pine plantation. The eucs are handy source of free firewood when boughs drop after storms, sometimes with whole trunks blocking the road. Not only is escape difficult during a fire but smouldering fallen trees may hinder rescue once the fire is burnt out. Our conclusion was that there should be a clearway available to all properties.

    I have a fire bunker in case escape is impossible. However blocked roads during a mega-fire when emergency services are run off their feet may mean survivors and the injured are on their own for several days. Perhaps it's time for mandatory escape routes to be considered.

    1. Sebastian Poeckes


      In reply to John Newlands

      Escape routes? Maybe it would be better to declare some areas off limits for development. Too many rural residential areas have only one reasonable exit route. Discouraging development along the prevailing windward sides of wooded ridges would also be a good start.

      As for fuel control burning, altogether too many wildfires start from control burns. And, in the case of Victoria, having a policy of burning 5% of forested land each year has just meant that forests that in no way threaten urban areas are burned when heavily wooded areas on urban fringes would offer better returns for effort expended.

      Clearly, fuel control on the urban fringe can be a very fraught exercise, while burning relatively remote forests looks good in terms of of percentages of forested land burned, but may not really make the bulk of the population very much safer. Another instance of politics getting in the way of good policy.

    2. Mark Poynter


      In reply to Sebastian Poeckes


      Your comment about burning on the urban interface versus in more remote forests has been a common criticism of Victoria's 5% burning target.

      You are right that burning on the interface is far harder and concentrating all burning efforts there would result in far less area being burnt each year. It would also allow fuels to build in more remote areas which can eventually spark massively intense fires that eventually find their way to settlements to threaten human life and property…

      Read more
    3. Sebastian Poeckes


      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Mark, my main beef is that resources are limited, the greatest threats to life and property are on the urban fringes so the greatest returns for effort are concentrated there. At least two million or more hectares won't need much control burning for years. There are many areas on the urban edges where thousands of people live in heavily wooded surroundings. Most of these haven't seen fire for decades, not least because the people who live there actively resisted proper fire reduction for aesthetic reasons, etc. While the memory of Black Saturday still has resonance those areas should be prioritised or we will face the same issues again, sooner rather than later, just as failure to seize the opportunities for planning reform in those same areas after Ash Wednesday left them exposed in 2009.

  4. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    As a society we are either pretty dumb or just have far too may bureaucrats doing far too much controlling.
    For starters, all rural villages in timbered areas should have a cleared fire break of at least a 100 metres and more where considered necessary, at least half of it could be annually ploughed for carbon storage at little cost.
    And then you have some councils that have restrictions on roadside clearing of undergrowth along property boundaries, just adding to hazhards of using roads when fires are about.

  5. John Brookes

    logged in via Facebook

    Another interesting thing is that the amount of time available for controlled burns each year is pretty limited, and maybe getting less. And controlled burns have a habit of becoming uncontrolled.

    The 2011 Margaret River bushfire started as a controlled burn in early September that year. The fire was re-ignited on 21 November, and then got out of control when hot weather and strong winds hit.