Victorian Bushfires – What to Do?

In 1983 I sat on my parents roof watching the Adelaide Hills burn. Last weekend the same thing happened to country Victoria, about 800km away. It was only luck that the rural fringe of Adelaide was spared. We too were right at the end of a record breaking 2 weeks spell of 40C weather, and our peri-urban communities have similar construction and terrain. Population densities in the Adelaide Hills have soared over recent decades due to better freeways and lifestyle changes. I have no doubt that a similar firestorm will occur to the Adelaide Hills in the future.

I am a very junior member of the South Australian Country Fire Service (CFS). As I live in the city I don’t actually fight fires – instead I help out with management and communication tasks at a regional headquarters. Most of the time this means I work radios, for example I have relayed reports from helicopters surveying the boundaries of the fire. I have the utmost respect for the volunteers who actually fight the fires. More senior members of my brigade have 30 years experience fighting fires and now help manage them, for example deciding what resources are required and coordinating logistics.

For a big fire an entire organisation with many levels of management can be constructed in a few hours, live for a week, then be torn down as people return home to their day jobs.

What Happened

I was very confused about the high death toll (currently estimated at 300) and how people died. You see we have 100 years of experience in bushfire behaviour and have evolved certain strategies based on this experience. Our CFS trainings says that months ahead, you devise a “bushfire protection” plan:

  • Decide to leave your home early on the day of the expected fire, several hours before it’s expected impact. You never bolt or try to drive away when the fire is upon you, as it’s too easy to get caught in the open.
  • If your decide to stay, shelter in your home and wait until the fire front has passed. Then emerge and either attempt to save your home or move to burnt ground. You prepare months ahead by removing fuel (trees, grass, shrubs) from around your home; having firefighting equipment, appropriate clothing; and be prepared to face the terror of a bushfire.

Remember: Radiant heat is the killer. Deaths directly caused by burning is rare. Put as much solid material between you and the fire. Shelter inside a house. If you are in a car get down low and cover yourself with blankets. Wait until the fire front has passed then move onto burnt ground. Cars and houses usually burn after the fire front has passed. Don’t run or get caught in the open where the radiant heat can get you.

That’s the theory at least, and for normal fires you have a good chance of survival.

The Firestorm

However in this was not a normal fire. This was a firestorm:

  • Extraordinary weather conditions (46C and high winds) lead to extraordinary fire behaviour. Very fast, unpredictable behaviour. The firestorm could kill by radiant heat at 200m. Fires raced up hills, fanned by their own heat and wind. Trees were vaporised, the gas fuelling the fire. The effect is exponential, 4 times as much fuel makes 13 times as much heat. During World War 2 the same sort of firestorms were generated by intense Allied bombing raids on Germany and Japan.
  • Houses caught fire very quickly killing those sheltering inside. In “normal” bushfires, it’s the left over embers that make the house burn, often well after the fire front has passed. In this case home protection equipment was too weak – pipes melted, pumps stopped working, and their power was just inadequate. Houses were on fire in seconds. Glass melted in front of your face. Every fire fighting system has it’s limit, and the firestorm was just too strong.
  • Information systems couldn’t cope, people weren’t warned. Information didn’t travel to the people who needed it. I have been in the CFS “war room” when big fires were building. It takes a while to get a picture of what is really going on. You are relying on reports from aircraft or fire fighters via radio. Compared to the progression of a firestorm, information travels slowly both up and down the command chain. The system works OK for longer “campaign fires” that last for a week. You have time to gather information, prepare, coordinate, organise. However I can see why many people weren’t warned in the recent firestorms – their extraordinary speed means they develop too quickly for the system to respond, especially when multiple fires are already raging across the state.
  • Decades of rural population growth meant lots of people living in rural environments. Beautiful green trees in winter turn into cans of petrol suspended above your head in summer.
  • Fires need fuel to burn. The CSIRO estimates fuel loads were 40-50 tonnes per hectare. About 8 tonnes is considered dangerous. Local government promoted tree planting next to houses. In many cases this was the law. Those lovely trees turn into flame throwers pointed at you and your family.

What to Do

Here are some ideas, most of them borrowed from what I have read this week and some borrowed from much more experienced colleagues in the CFS.

  • The old advice still stands. Leave a bushfire threatened area early, or be prepared to shelter in your house and fight after it passes. Firestorms are still not the norm. Put as much between you and radiant heat as you can.
  • Shelters (a fireproof bunker) should be manditory, either at household or community level, say at the local park. A $3,000 shelter is a trival expense on a $500,000 property. Get something fireproof between you and radiant heat for 20 minutes and you live.
  • In a firestorm situation, allow information to flow quickly to a local level. Each community should have it’s own warning system (like an air-raid siren at the local fire station). Local sensors even, like a web-cam mounted on a pole or local hill so you can see whats coming. Broadcast it at low power on an unused TV channel (or via battery powered wifi) so anyone can see a fire coming. Provide some way for locals to raise and propogate an alarm (for example SMS a certain number to make the local siren ring). Software could determine if the SMS was from a local person with authority to “press the button”.
  • Send fire information directly to local areas. For example the perimeter of a fire and it’s direction of travel could be relayed from a spotter plane via SMS to everyone in a certain area. This will allow a plan of escape to be devised, and prevent people driving into the fire by taking a wrong turn. Traditional command and control structures can still be used for medium and long term management of fires. Let the information flow freely, rather than through a chain of command. Locals can then make their own decisions in the event that a state-wide management system can’t cope.
  • Fire prone areas could be dotted with sensors, for example small “weather station” type boxes with cameras and cell phones that can detect nearby fires. Hundreds of them. Humans can’t respond on the time scale of a firestorm, but machines could. Place them on electricity poles, houses, hill tops.
  • Invaluable aircraft stopped flying at the height of the firestorm (it wasn’t safe). All of our best intelligence on the fire comes aircraft. Remotely piloted vehicles could keep flying under these conditions. Put 10-20 of them up all over the area at risk.
  • Fuel load limits should be law and mandated. Could you sleep with explosives spread around your yard?
  • Computer games and simulations. I can imagine a 1st person shooter type game where it’s you versus the fire. You get to see the fire approaching your house and try to fight it. You get put in the role of a volunteer fire fighter, or be the head of an entire states fire service. You get to try different strategies and experience their effects (or lack thereof). The games could (and should) be free for everyone to “play” – and get trained in the process.

Links

CSIRO Victorian Bushfire Fact Sheet

Victoria bushfires stoked by green vote

Bush Fire Front

8 thoughts on “Victorian Bushfires – What to Do?”

  1. In September 2007 I was looking for a place to rent around Strathewen and Arthurs Creek – thought it would be a nice place to hang out not too far away from my daughters living in Melbourne. As it turned out, I went to NZ instead and am now in Vancouver, Canada. But if it had been just a little easier to find a nice house nestled in the trees that I liked …

    I’ve been struggling to understand how so many people could have been caught “so easily” and this blog post has helped me to grasp the likely reality of the situation much better than the dozens of news reports I have read and watched. I’ve had my own close encounters with fire – in the Adelaide Hills on Ash Wednesday – and in WA on a rural property – but now I see with continuing climate change we have to review everything we thought we knew about fire.

  2. Ever since hearing about those bushfires I’ve been wondering why there were so many deaths knowing that Australians should be used to them. Thanks for clarifying what’s different in those fires. None of those “details” made it to the news here in Canada.

  3. A fire fighting game actually sounds like a good idea for a RTS. Something like water could be your “currency” that you spend it to try and stop the fire from overtaking a town.

  4. To make the leave early message make sense you need to have a more locally relevant trigger than Total Fire Ban. There were warnings about Black Saturday well in advance – 5 or so days before hand. But even then few of us realised just how bad it would be. I was at home with my wife and prepared to defend my home. I know now that I would have been hard pressed to save it had that fire been in the Dandenong Ranges. And if the house had caught fire would there have been a safe burnt area to go to? A fire storm is a scary prospect. So now I will leave in the morning if I see an Forest Fire Developed Index figure for our area over 75. I am confident that we are capable of surviving a fire of that intensity. Black Saturday was 135 here. I think that using the FFDI needs to become common knowledge. It is found on the Bureau of Meteriology website – Your state forecasts.

  5. Excellent article. I am a secondary schoolteacher anfdhave been spending alot of questiontime calming kids fears about bushfire, but also making a clear distinction between bushfire and firestorm.
    The firefighting game is a brilliant idea although many would claim its in bad taste…it would be and excellent way of teaching people practical tips on fires you can beat, and firestorms you can’t…
    cheers for the heads up on the FFDI…

  6. I notice you reference a couple of articles by David Packham and his associates. What surprised me when I read these and similar references was that not only had this disaster been predicted but methods for mitigating it had also been suggested for a few years now (by the Stretton Society) and ignored.

    All your suggestions seem good to me but the one about reducing fuel levels from 40-50 tonnes per hectare down to the recommended 8 tonnes ought to be highlighted, to scale down the whole scenario. I did some calculations which confirmed David Packham’s estimate that the Vic fires released something like 660 Hiroshima bomb equivalents energy, which really surprised me. I’m wondering and worried that as a society we might continue to make decisions that lead to occasional disasters in preference to regular inconvenience.

  7. We live in the Daylesford area, affected over the past week by bush fires. After February 7 many people here were so worried about a fire storm, they left their homes to take refuge in a town consisting of mostly wooden buildings.

    Without adequate fire fighting equipment, we too joined the exodus. Country Fire Authority volunteers were left to defend properties without the help of landholders.

    With hotter, drier conditions forecast for Victoria due to climate change, all those who live in bushland areas need to equip themselves to cope with ‘normal’ fires. They also need to reduce fuel loads on their properties.

    As for firestorms such as those we saw on February 7, they’re completely indefensible, both from a fire-fighting perspective and on a local government level. Fuel loads in forests should never have been allowed to reach such high levels.

    In 1969, eminent archaeologist Rhys Jones said ‘What do we want to conserve, the environment as it was in 1788, or do we yearn for an environment without man, as it might have been 30,000 or more years ago? If the former, then we must do what the Aborigines did and burn at regular intervals under controlled conditions.’

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