On Black Saturday the state failed to protect its citizens. This failure was long in the making, eminently predictable and only possible because intellectuals and the media abdicated any critical role. Four months on, the mainstream media has published virtually no analysis of fire policy.

The architects of our catastrophic wildfire policies are still treated as gurus. Fire “scientists” and timber industry zealots rule their charred roost as if nothing had happened.

Black Saturday was the logical outcome of erroneous assumptions and policies developed over a quarter of a century. Organisational, conceptual and scientific misconceptions were woven into a deadly, unchallenged narrative. Administrative incompetence merely increased the magnitude of an inevitable disaster. Relentless pursuit of wretched fire officials must not substitute for examination of ultimate causes.

Firestorm weather was correctly forecast. The direction of the fires was as expected. Fire authorities knew such fires could not be stopped. Black Saturday was far from unprecedented. Since 1851 there have been so many firestorms our clichés have run out of days of the week.

Hindsight is not required. Take the Otway coast, which like much of Victoria is virtually undefendable in a severe bushfire. The forest sweeps down unbroken to the sea in my 86-year-old mother’s coastal town. We live 200 km away, so every fire season there’s a rapid exchange of emails when bushfire threat looms. Before Black Saturday, I sent her the following emails:

5th Feb. 2pm

“Saturday will be a bad fire day and could be the worst. Winds are currently predicted up to 45kph, which is bad but not extreme, but it could get a lot worse than that. Then the CFA etc will be useless. So keep checking the CFA website for fires all day. If one starts north or SW of Anglesea … then just take a few things and leave by car to the beach.”

6th Feb. 2pm

“One senior CFA officer on TV last nite said ‘houses don’t go up in a ball of fire … it’s embers … you can deal with them’. This is very dangerous advice. The vast volley of embers cannot be stopped by anything — so 80kph wind, lots of nearby trees — this equals impossible. And all most people have got is garden hoses. Useless … the Canberra fires show just how an ember storm is unstoppable. They didn’t need fuel, just wind. So things haven’t improved much on the CFA front.”

The CFA seems unable to comprehend a hierarchy of fire severity. It knows it cannot stop raging fire fronts, though it took the deaths of five volunteers at Linton in 1998 to kill off the Gallipoli Syndrome which sent fire crews into mortal danger. Why then does the CFA say you are safe in your house if you are “prepared”? If firefighters can’t fight wildfire head-on, how can householders?

The answer is that CFA advice defines houses as refuges and fire as average fire. In bad fires, houses are fuel, not refuges. Ember blizzard and radiant heat can ignite houses immediately, contrary to CFA advice based on fire “science”.

“Stay and defend” is justified by fire science generated after Ash Wednesday. The ideology driving this research was outlined by Dr. Kevin Tolhurst in his evidence before the Royal Commission in which he backed the “stay and defend” policies because “community empowerment” is better than relying “totally on organisations.”

This approach is wrong. “Community empowerment” should mean every resident safely accounted for in a crisis. You are not empowered by a mop or by being told to “leave early”, whatever that means.

The latest such research, presented to the Commission, concludes that no “prepared” person has ever died fighting wildfire from a “defendable property” in Australia since 1900.

Of the 552 “civilians” who died, 32% were fleeing the fire too late, 26% were “defending outside” and 8% were “passively sheltering” in houses.

The rest died elsewhere. (K. Haynes et al, 100 years of Australian Civilian Bushfire Casualties, Bushfire Research Coop. 2008)

So the victims are to blame. They fled too late, or exposed themselves to radiant heat while firefighting outside “defendable” refuge-buildings, or neglected to emerge to deal with embers “after the fire front passed.”

This absurd conclusion is derived from a single false assumption: that houses are “defendable”. Rather than people irrationally fleeing a safe refuge, it is far more plausible that people fled into the fire when their houses were engulfed. Likewise, it is far more likely that those “fighting outside” knew their houses were burning or about to burn, so they could not retreat. And it is far more likely that those incinerated indoors knew that going outside would result in instant death. 113 people died indoors on Black Saturday. Will Australian fire science now claim that they were in a safe refuge but failed to emerge to put out embers?

The evidence from Ash Wednesday eyewitnesses is the same as for Black Saturday: most houses burned when the fire front struck. This is confirmed by my examination of the fire ground at Anglesea immediately after the 1983 fire.

“Fire scientists” have failed utterly to comprehend that ember blizzard cannot be dealt with by householders or even fire trucks (e.g. Canberra 2003), and that radiant heat ignites houses in firestorms. The fire front does not “pass” the house, it consumes it. The house is fuel, not refuge.

The Haynes research is just one of many similar “scientific” reports which have shaped wildfire policy since 1967. They conclude that “well-prepared” houses are a safe refuge and that radiant heat/car crashes kill “late” evacuators.

Haynes et al reinforced the “stay and defend” policy with an optimistic assessment of recent wildfire management “improvements” and sociological trends:

Bushfire risk management improved particularly from the post-war period with the inception of the bushfire brigades. There has been an increasing focus on community education and awareness about bushfire preparedness and response (self sufficiency), and improvements in communication and technology have enabled better access to information by the public.

The second factor concerns the fact that there has been a profound shift in population trends and working conditions around Australia, with less people living in simple dwellings in isolated locations.

The failure of communication on Feb 7th and the irrelevance of technology to firestorm is now a matter of record. To define “preparedness” as an improvement begs the very question at issue: can residents fight wildfire? To assert that there are fewer people now living in “simple dwellings in isolated locations” is probably false and in any case immaterial. There are now few timber workers living deep in the forest, but there are far more tree-changers.

There is also no evidence that a “complex” building is less vulnerable to wildfire than a “simple” one. But Haynes et al miss the key point: that suburbia has moved into the bush. Bushurbia bore the brunt of Black Saturday. Thousands of suburbanites with little or no experience of bush life are now exposed to risk.

The CFA and other fire agencies have not suffered a loss of collective memory due to the effluxion of time since the last disaster. Rather, the bogus concepts of post-1983 “fire science” have merged with the sociological imperatives of bureaucratic control. Organisations are about control. Incapacity is unthinkable. The CFA is a vast quasi-military body which exists solely to defeat wildfire. At the root of Black Saturday is a fatal dilemma: the inability of the CFA to reconcile the fact that it can neither stop severe wildfire nor admit that it cannot. To do so would subvert the CFA’s raison d’etre.

The CFA compensates in two ways: it sheds responsibility by encouraging citizens to defend their own property and expresses confidence in its own ability to suppress fires. It expertly handles low to medium-intensity fires, but these are not killer fires. False confidence is generated by technology, from water bombers to communications equipment. Consequently, people treat the CFA as the fire brigade which will turn up like the cavalry.

The public does not realise that the CFA’s job is to “contain” large fires using firebreaks, back-burning and so forth. The CFA’s primary target is always the fire perimeter, not “assets” threatened by the fire. And of course the CFA is unable to fight raging fire fronts, which restricts its role in firestorms primarily to issuing warnings and trying to suppress new fires before they race away.

This section was written before CFA chief Russell Rees gave the following evidence to the Royal Commission on 1st June:

Mr Rees disagreed with evidence given by Kevin Tolhurst, who told the Commission that any fire burning for more than 10 minutes would have been impossible to control on that day given the extreme fire conditions.

“There was (sic) at least 42 fires on that day that were of the potential to be equal, if not worse, than the fires that did all that damage”, he said. “We’re in unprecedented territory; it’s just that Feb.7th has taught us the consequences.”

On 9th June, Rees said “the systems on that day worked very, very well. We had an unprecedented event in unprecedented weather.”

Black Saturday generated an unprecedented number of unprecedenteds.

Frank Campbell is the former Australian editor of international Wildfire magazine and a 30-year resident of fire-prone rural properties.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey