Black Saturday fires ‘could happen again’

It is “inevitable” that conditions as bad as those which led to the terrible Black Saturday bushfires 10 years ago will occur again, experts claim. On February 7 2009 record temperatures – Melbourne hit 46.4C that day – and driving wind, coming on top of a persistent summer heatwave and decade-long drought, created devastating bushfire conditions in Victoria. About 400 fires were recorded across the state, affecting 78 communities. A total of 173 people died and 2029 houses were destroyed. Insured losses were more than $1 billion, or $1.76 billion when normalised to 2017 dollars. A royal commission ran for most of 2010 but despite dozens of reforms, experts believe a similar – or possibly even worse – event could still happen. Andrew Gissing, an emergency management expert with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre and GM Resilience at Risk Frontiers, says climate change is leading to increased frequency of bushfire weather and populations continue to grow in at-risk areas. “It is inevitable that the conditions that resulted in the Black Saturday tragedy will occur again and systems will be tested under significant stress,” he said. The centre’s CEO Richard Thornton says comprehensive changes in policy, operations and community engagement have taken place. This has “undoubtedly resulted in a reduction in loss of life and property in subsequent bushfires”, he says. But he believes greater investment in mitigation is still needed. “We know that on the really bad days like Black Saturday, our fire agencies will not stop these fires any more than they can stop a cyclone or volcano. “What we can do is ensure that communities, businesses and governments are more resilient to the impacts of these disasters. “We need to be investing in the reduction of the hazardous vegetation in regional areas as well as on the urban fringe, especially around the places we live and work.” More investment is also needed in training and resourcing agencies, he says, and in further research. Professor David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science at The University of Tasmania, says climate change is “loading the dice” for a repeat of such catastrophic fires. “Most people are unaware of the mounting danger of living in dangerously flammable bushland in a period of climate change,” he said. Jim McLennan, Bushfire Safety Researcher and Adjunct Professor at the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University, believes the authorities are much better prepared to face such a catastrophe now. But he agrees that the general public are still dismissive of the risks. “Police, fire and emergency services and agencies like the Bureau of Meteorology are much better prepared to manage a Black Saturday type extreme bushfire event. “Fire behaviour prediction has improved greatly, as has the technology for issuing warnings. Authorities are now highly experienced in the use of aircraft to drop retardant or water to slow a fire and help protect life and property. “But, sadly, a decade of post-Black Saturday research in communities … indicates only modest levels of improvement, overall, in householder awareness of their danger and preparations to survive in the event of a serious bushfire threat. “A belief that ‘bushfires happen elsewhere to other households, on TV’ remains widespread.” If the Black Saturday fires happened again, the authorities would be better placed to respond. But a combination of worsening bushfire weather, and lack of public awareness, means the potential for tragedy remains. “At the time, the Black Saturday conditions were beyond the imagination of many,” Dr Thornton says. “What does the next bushfire that we think is beyond our imagination look like?” 

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