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A Year After Fires, Australia Debates What Went Wrong

6 minute read
Marina Kamenev / Sydney

Like many residents in the cluster of towns northeast of Melbourne, Michael Minten and his partner Sharon Collins were caught completely off-guard when last year’s ‘Black Saturday’ infernos swallowed their property in Flowerdale, Victoria. Minten went ahead to work in the morning, leaving Collins at home with their toddler. The sky was a hazy amber as the fire raged in nearby towns, but no one thought the flames would reach Flowerdale. With typical summer temperatures of 115 degrees, Collins did what she usually did on hot days: crank up air-conditioning full-blast, and draw the blinds to keep out the sun.

But by midday, Collins noticed the phones and electricity were not working. By the time she decided to leave the house, the sky was black. “She had no idea that she was in that much danger. She couldn’t see anything,” recalls Minten. “She crashed the car into a tree on the way out.” Eventually, Collins spotted the faint headlights of another car through the haze and followed it up the windy road to a pub where she, her son and other Flowerdale residents stayed briefly before they were evacuated to Yea, a nearby town. The couple’s weatherboard home burnt to the ground. “Nothing was salvageable,” says Minten. Still, the family was lucky. Many others died that day trying to escape the way that Collins did, crashing into trees that were impossible to see in the smoke.

(See pictures of the deadly 2009 wildfires.)

On Feb. 7, Australia will mark the one-year anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires, the worst natural disaster in the continent’s recorded history. The deadly combination of scorching temperatures and dry northwesterly winds from central Australia’s parched desert caused fires that spread over 1 million acres (413,000 hectares), killing 173 people. Over 2000 homes were reduced to ash, dozens of towns were emptied of their populations and native wildlife was cremated on a devastating scale. The intense heat boiled 200,000 trout alive in their ponds outside of Marysville, the town worst hit by the fires.

(See pictures of the koala rescue effort during the fires.)

As Australia mourns the blaze’s victims, questions are being raised at how a nation so prone to yearly bushfires could have been so desperately unprepared for this one. Last February, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was quickly established to investigate what went wrong. Though their report is not due until later this year, one of the failings could have been a decades-old evacuation policy advocated by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) known as ‘stay or go.’ The policy encourages individuals confronted with bushfires to leave early, or stay behind and defend their property, with the reasoning that last-minute evacuations result in deaths.

But last year, 113 out of the 173 deceased died in their homes. The “stay or go” approach has a long history in rural Australia, and gradually became official policy after the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires in southeastern Australia. “If someone was present in a house, it had a 90% chance of surviving the fire — protecting the occupants in the process — while many perished leaving at the last minute,” says John Handmer, director of the Centre for Risk and Community Safety at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology who conducted a review of the ‘stay or go’ policy for the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre. Back then, he says, “houses were built differently, smaller, simpler, more materials, surrounded by green gardens and probably burnt more slowly. Staying was likely safer.”

Despite the fact that so many died in their homes last year following this logic, Handmer’s study, in which he and his colleague Josh Whittaker interviewed 1,300 survivors from last year’s fires, found that 80% of those who stayed would do it again. “It’s really difficult to make a conclusion on ‘stay or go,'” said Handmer. “It’s supported by history but new building styles, building locations [close to the bush], reliance on fire agencies and perhaps increased fire weather risk, make effective implementation very difficult. There’s no point staying and defending a house that has little chance of surviving … [Communities] need to know what to do, and where to go when their plans fail.”

Another factor contributing to the devastation was the outdated warning scheme then used throughout the country. The Forest Fire Danger Index (FDI), invented by scientist Alan McArthur in the 1960s, evaluates the difficulty in extinguishing fires under various combinations of temperature and wind. For most of years since it’s been used, an FDI warning of 50 out of 100 points indicated that an area was at extreme risk. But in recent years, there have been many days where the index has hovered around the 100 mark, a shift some attribute to climate change. On Feb. 7, when the FDI reached an unprecedented high of 150, most people interpreted that number as just another dry, windy day when the FDI was high again. “Victoria was prepared for a really hot day, but nothing more,” said Handmer. The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission’s has already made an interim suggestion of a ‘catastrophic’ code-red rating for days when the FDI exceeds 100, which was implemented in September.

Meanwhile, while the Commission continues to analyze data to make recommendations for how to improve the national warning systems, Australia prepares for the somber anniversary. On Sunday, Victoria will observe a minute of silence for last year’s victims. Pictures of Marysville in the Melbourne Age show charred trees peppered with green shoots, and community websites show temporary housing constructed amidst the rubble. But the area has a long way to go before a tourism industry can begin to flourish there again. Marysville, once a favorite weekend getaway for people living in Melbourne, will probably not recover to be the scenic town it was. Only 60% of those who lost their homes in the region plan to return.

But Minten and Collins are among them, waiting to build their new home on a new block of land in Flowerdale. And Minten insists that apart from not planting trees near the house, they will not do anything differently. “All these bushfire prevention ideas are a load of rubbish,” he says. “The brick houses were just as burnt as the timber ones. It doesn’t matter what the house is made of. A fire like that will destroy everything in its path.”

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