Our deadly bushfire gamble: risk your life or bet your house

The aftermath of the bushfires that swept through the Blue Mountains last October. AAP Image/High Alpha

News images of traumatised homeowners huddled in front of the ashes of their homes have become increasingly familiar in recent years. But the question has to be asked - why are we so often surprised when bushfires strike, when so often they happen in known fire danger zones?

The fact that so many Australians don’t understand the risks of living in areas at risk from bushfires means that we have a national problem. It’s time to start debating what we do about it.

So what is the most appropriate way for residents and fire managers to prepare for uncontrolled bushfires?

Should we stick with the traditional “stay defend or go”, or should we heed the revamped slogan of “leave and live”? And are there any other strategies that we haven’t tried yet, no matter how difficult they might be?

Evacuate or stay to fight?

At one policy extreme is mandatory evacuation enforced by government authorities. This is not widely practised in Australia but is the norm in North America. This policy maximises the preservation of life, but at the cost of committing homes to destruction that could conceivably be saved if residents were present to extinguish spot fires.

When people don’t stay behind, unchecked house fires can spread to neighbouring houses, potentially resulting in a firefighter’s worse nightmare – house to house ignitions burning down entire suburbs. Enforced evacuations create massive social disruption, and in the worse case could result in loss of life if traffic funnelled into clogged transport routes are overwhelmed by fire.

At the other policy extreme is the notion that home owners stay and defend their own properties, which has been the mainstay of Australian bushfire emergency response. Yet the risk with staying and defending homes is that individuals can massively underestimate the risks they face when they are inadequately prepared materially, physically and psychologically.

Residents can be killed in futile attempts to suppress raging fires, or by last minute escapes from the fire front. This is why the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission recommended a modification to the “stay defend or go” policy to mandatory evacuation under catastrophic fire weather conditions.

Clearly, the response to uncontrolled bushfires burning hinges on risk assessments made by residents. A lurking question is whether residents have sufficient knowledge to understand the information they are presented, both before and during a bushfire disaster.

Fire danger maps

Landscape ecologists and fire scientists are increasingly refining risk assessment of properties based on landscape setting that captures a range of risk factors, such as proximity to bushland, garden types and the construction of buildings.

Likewise, firefighters are developing clear protocols that allow them decide whether or not it is safe to attempt to save a property. In some situations, houses will be deliberately left to burn down to protect the lives of firefighters.

It is increasingly possible to combine both the landscape ecology perspective and the firefighting protocols to develop a reasonable assessment of an individual property’s risk using maps.

As Dr Kevin Tolhurst rightly argued this week, we need publicly available, easy-to-understand, detailed maps showing the areas that might be directly exposed to a bushfire under different severities of weather, including severe, extreme and “code red” conditions. As Dr Tolhurst put it:

Such maps would show where people might be exposed to a bushfire on a particular day and, importantly, areas not likely to be exposed that would therefore be a safe place to seek refuge. This would help answer the question: “Leave and go where?”

Producing those sorts of fire risk maps, not just for experts but also aimed at the public, has not yet been attempted on a broad scale.

Should this approach be rolled out, I suspect tens of thousands of properties in south-eastern Australia would be classified as indefensible from uncontrolled bushfires in severe bushfire weather conditions that are likely to occur at least once each summer.

I also suspect that the vast majority of residents in these at-risk properties are blissfully unaware of these risks.

Defending the indefensible

Our improved understanding of bushfire risk in urban areas raises thorny practical and philosophical issues.

Should government be taking stronger action to inform residents of fire risk, even using the law to force residents to reduce the risk to properties? Should more stringent planning tools be used to more tightly control development in areas identified as being at high risk of bushfire?

Should the government be identifying and disseminating information about areas where homes might be indefensible by firefighters under certain conditions?

None of those are easy solutions, because they would all have knock-on effects on property values, insurance rates, broader urban planning and go to the core rights and responsibilities of citizens.

It’s arguable that none of that is necessary, because the information is out there if people want to join the dots about whether their area is fire-prone. Yet the shock and devastation on the faces of so many fire survivors tells us that many Australians are not aware of how vulnerable their homes are.

So as a starting point, our federal, state and local governments should work together to develop publicly available fire risk maps. Australians need to be able to make genuinely informed decisions about where to live, and in what circumstances they should stay or leave when the heat is on.

Both as individuals and as a community, we need to take more responsibility for our own safety.

We simply can’t expect firefighters to keep trying to defend indefensible homes or, worse, to risk their lives to rescue homeowners who make bad bets on their own survival.

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