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Fires, floods, and why it’s not all bad news in 2013

While Australia has copped fires and floods this summer, fire expert Peter Johnson points out there have been relatively few deaths from natural disasters. He examines why.

Along the east coast of Australia, the top half is underwater and the bottom half has seen major bushfires in the past month. It’s remarkable more people haven’t died.

Could it be that the authorities are becoming more effective at emergency management? Or are people responding better to the multiple layers of warnings now in place, particularly since the terrible 2009 Victorian bushfires of Black Saturday, or the frightening Brisbane floods of 2011?

The answer is we probably don’t know, and will not know unless we do the necessary research and collect the evidence. Let’s do the research. Then we can look at collecting the evidence.

There appears to be some indication that fewer lives have been lost this season (at least in the bushfires of this past month) because the conditions have not been as extreme.

In the case of bushfires this 2012-13 season, Victoria has experienced few days where circumstances have been judged to be “extreme”, and no days have been declared “code red” or “catastrophic” with the Forest Fire Danger Index over 100. On Black Saturday, the FFDI was judged to be between 120 and 200 in some areas, and 173 lives were lost. This season there have been some major fires, such as the Aberfeldy-Donnellys fire which burned nearly 70,000 hectares, with no multiple casualties.

The conditions, at least in Victoria, appear to have been such that the emergency services have been able to give warnings in sufficient time for most people to respond and evacuate, or prepare to defend their property themselves. In Tasmania, the major fire at Dunalley in early January was judged to be “catastrophic“ at times by Fire Chief Mike Brown, however no lives were lost and perhaps conditions were not as severe as first thought. One firefighter died, but of natural causes.

While suggesting this year’s bushfire conditions down the east coast (excluding Tasmania) have generally not been as severe as they may appear from media reports, a degree of success may be attributed to new forms of warning and more effective responses of individuals and communities to imminent life-threatening conditions.

In the case of floods in Queensland and NSW in particular, conditions have been catastrophic, especially in places like Bundaberg where wholesale evacuations have been required. While there have been a small number of people who have perished, the dangers of floodwaters at time still seem to go unheeded.

When natural disasters strike, there are warnings provided on ABC radio and fire authority websites. More official channels are now supplemented in some areas by new emergency warning systems, including use of Twitter and Facebook, the CFA Fire Ready App in Victoria, and the Emergency Alert SMS messaging systems. On the other hand, the evidence presented at the Victoria Bushfire Royal Commission was that many people got their warnings from simple observations of fire or smoke approaching, or from neighbours via a phone call. The same is probably true of floods.

It may well be that rather than responding to official warnings from government authorities, many people may now be getting their warnings via social media or through person-to-person communications. If that is the case, then the whole approach to emergency management and development of more resilient communities may need even greater focus on social media.

However, a recent report in the Herald Sun highlights the issue of “hoaxes and false rumours spread through social media by trolls and misinformed internet users”. This has the potential to destroy the trust so important to effective warning systems which was highlighted by Melbourne University’s John Handmer at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (see the “warning” chapter).

So, has emergency management and communities’ response to bushfires and floods improved over the last three years, especially in this January 2013 period? Or have conditions been generally less severe, particularly in the bushfire case? To repeat an earlier comment: the answer is we probably don’t know, and will not know unless we do the necessary research and collect the evidence.

Let’s look at collecting the evidence, or data. Fire authorities and emergency services will probably conduct normal debriefs at the end of the fire season. During the post-flood recovery period, there will be reviews conducted, to try and uncover the lessons learnt. However this needs good, consistent year-on-year research, good incident data collect and analysis and real testing of evidence on effective emergency management.

The Bushfire Co-Operative Research Centre is nearing the end of its projected life. The Fire Protection Association Australia is calling for a national body to at least manage fire incident data, analysis and research from which regulators, emergency managers, insurers, community leaders and the public can make better informed decisions to improve public safety and address the questions posed at the outset — have we done better this year on emergency management, with improved community response? Or have we just been fortunate that conditions have been less severe than previous years?

It would be helpful to know the answers, and a national body that collects  and analyses data could well be a step to finding these answers and better informing design and policy.

*Peter Johnson is a senior member of the fire engineering practice at Arupan independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists

6
  • 1
    Pamela
    Posted Friday, 1 February 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Maybe another reason for less deaths is human’s capacity to learn through experience and adapt behaviour accordingly.
    The Victorian fires were a sad and salutary lesson to all of us not just those who suffered directly.
    Of course idiots are always with us- slow learners- who decide to drive through flooded creeks etc and kids without supervision who try swimming in flooded rivers. They learn or they die.
    maybe this is where some community ed needs to be concentrated in order to save the lives of those who then have to attempt to rescue the idiots.
    The bozo who sped through the foam needs a good talking to- he nearly ran over a couple of police who were trying to direct folks to safety- not clever.

  • 2
    Sharilynn Gerchow
    Posted Friday, 1 February 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    The Qld Police Service’s Facebook page has 363,936 likes as of now. It is my first port of call for information and I’ve followed their flood coverage closely. Most of their posts are delivered with a great sense of humour (very cheesy)and they really “humanise” the police force. Check out their What the? Friday offerings.

  • 3
    Posted Friday, 1 February 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Meanwhile, how can a community deal with people like the man who started-deliberately-the Aberfeldy/Donnelly fire? He will be found to be mentally impaired before being put on a good behaviour bond. Locking these people up would further cut down on the amount of bushfires.

    Years ago the people of Queensland used to build their homes on high wooden stilts in order not to have the next flood wash over them. Is this still the case? If not, then clearly people do not learn through experience.

  • 4
    Posted Friday, 1 February 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Trolls (and Chinese whispers) are a good reason why the #mythbuster tweets/posts are so helpful …

  • 5
    Posted Friday, 1 February 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Sharilynn is spot on about the Qld Police social media account(s): they do a terrific job of engaging with the community. @abcemergency and @cbemergency (CB radio network) are usually on the cutting edge. Fire service accounts are getting better. Apps need better development criteria and evaluation/testing, especially when they’re created with taxpayer funds.

    I think people who’d experienced or watched one recent disaster were more ready for another. Urban people had learnt that you can’t combat a bushfire, flood or cyclone with denial. Contrast this with Hurricane Sandy, where NY residents decided to stay because “it wouldn’t be that bad”.

    Following the different fire-service accounts on Twitter brought home to me just how atomized our emergency services are. We need, not just a central resource for analyzing data and making recommendations after fires, but one which handles all types of emergency: coordinating, allocating, communicating and afterwards, collecting data and working out how to do it better next time. Because there will be a next time,

  • 6
    Posted Monday, 4 February 2013 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Correction: John Handmer is at RMIT University.

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