OPINION:  One thing is sure – there will be bushfires

DETERMINING the bushfire potential across our wide country is a scientific process.

The Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) recently brought together fire and weather experts from around Australia to discuss the likelihood of bushfires occurring in various regions this summer.

It was obvious that vast parts of Australia faced above-average bushfire potential this bushfire season, while  other parts would still have an active normal season.

From what we have already seen in recent weeks, this potential has become the reality. Not only have there been many fires in the areas marked for high potential, much of the regions marked for normal activity, including the Hunter region, have also been active with fire.

It is critically important to remember that in an average or normal fire season there will still be serious fires.

Fires are part of the landscape; this summer we will still experience hot weather and total fire ban conditions, and we will still encounter fires, particularly, but not exclusively, in the grasslands.

We are now seeing many fast-running, high-intensity grass fires across much of Australia, as predicted.

The poor graziers in inland Australia  had a drought for over a decade, were flooded by two years of rainfall, and are now dealing with large fires.

This season, the above-average forecast in the interior is due to the abundant grass growth from the high amount of rain from two strong La Niña events of the past two years.

In the forest regions the fuel moisture content remains high, which shows that these areas have not dried as much as the more open grasslands.

Even a normal or average year is no time for complacency – communities need to be well prepared and attune to the fire dangers of hot summer days.

Unfortunately our research is showing that the level of preparation is still a long way short of what we wish householders would take and what is necessary to significantly reduce the likelihood of fatalities during an extreme fire event.

Bushfire CRC interviews with almost 500 survivors of the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria showed people intellectually understood a risk was present but this didn’t  translate into action.

There was a disconnect between the extreme fire danger weather predicted and any sense of personal risk or danger. 

People knew it was going to be a bad day but they thought it would be a bad day for others, not themselves.

These worrying findings were repeated after fires in Western Australia in early 2011 where we found the same thing. Many people had adopted a “wait and see” approach, which often led to hasty, last-minute decisions to either self-evacuate or defend their property.

Of the householders interviewed by the Bushfire CRC following Black Saturday, almost half had stayed and attempted to defend their home. One in five failed.

That is why all community fire safety messages are declaring that staying to defend a house is almost always a riskier option than leaving as soon as the threat becomes apparent. The safest place to be is nowhere near the fire.

Gary Morgan is the chief executive of the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre.




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