The new national fire warning system, with a top level of ‘catastrophic’ or ‘code red’, will send a clear message to everyone living in fire-prone areas that when conditions are so extreme the best survival measure is to get out of harm’s way.

The fact that we need a new category should send a clear message to authorities that climate change is upon us and the old ways of thinking about vegetation management also need to be reviewed.

A report submitted to the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission yesterday by the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Wilderness Society and the Victorian National Park Association shows that fuel reduction or ‘prescribed’ burning would not, and did not significantly slow the spread of the headfire in the catastrophic conditions of Black Saturday.

After one of the driest and hottest Januarys on record, the scene was set in early February for Victoria to experience higher Fire Danger Index ratings, or FDIs, than ever before.

The conditions recorded on Black Friday in 1939 effectively set the FDI benchmark of 100. But the fire danger levels on 7 February 2009 significantly exceeded the records set in 1939 and 1983’s Ash Wednesday fires.

On 7 February, in parts of Victoria, the temperature was 46.4°C, relative humidity was down to 9 per cent and wind gusts reached 81 km/h with a Drought Factor indicating record low moisture in any vegetation, the FDI was right off the scale. In Kilmore Gap on 7 February the FDI was up around 190 and in pastoral grasslands scoring around 300.

Conditions above 50 have traditionally been described as ‘extreme’. The unprecedented conditions of last summer have prompted the new category – ‘catastrophic’ – to describe fire weather conditions that exceed 100 FDI.

The emergence of catastrophic fire weather must change the way we prepare for future fire seasons. In the wake of last summer’s fires extremist groups like Forest Fire Victoria have called for a tripling of the amount of prescribed burning in Victoria.

Science-based prescribed burns are an important part of bushfire management and, contrary to some claims, environment groups support strategic fuel reduction burns and have done so for many years. When conditions turn catastrophic, the effectiveness of prescribed burning in slowing a headfire pales into insignificance.

We must do everything in our power to avoid a repeat of Black Saturday.

This means carefully examining planning and urban growth issues. It means investigating the fire ignition sources and eradicating the highest risks, such as single wire earth return powerlines.

It also means taking urgent, strong action on climate change, as scientists warn it is bringing more frequent hotter and drier weather conditions to south-eastern Australia.

And it means not giving people a false sense of security by claiming that a sole focus on prescribed burning and tree clearing will protect lives and property.