Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Flood preparations made by residents in northern Victoria and Queensland to save their homes have lessons for those in danger from bushfires. Particularly in the way they have so diligently put protective measures in place as far in advance as possible of the threat’s arrival.

Sandbagging, raising furniture above the expected water level, moving stock to higher ground has, predominantly, not been left until the moment of imminent danger. Most Black Saturday fatalities occurred because householders did leave protective action until the moment of imminent danger.

Bushfire researcher John Handmer found that more than half of those who died in the fire zone on February 7, 2009 had made no preparations at all. Thirty per cent were taken by surprise.

Moreover, people who live in a flood plain are usually aware of this fact. In the densely vegetated areas burnt on Black Saturday and many times previously, 25% of victims had been unaware that they lived in an area at risk of bushfires.

Over two thirds of the fatalities had been sheltering in or around houses that ignited and burned.

These are the three core areas of a house that make it vulnerable during a bushfire; where embers can flow in and destroy: subfloor, windows, ceiling space.

Infiltration of houses by water ’above floor’ has been halted by surrounding homes with flood-resistant sandbags. Infiltration of houses ’above floor’ by embers can be halted by shielding windows and plugging ’leaky’ roofs. Infiltration ’below floor’ can be halted with fire-resistant surrounds such as metal mesh.

Whole towns have been protected from infiltration by floodwaters when communities have worked together in advance to girdle them with a barrier to hold water at bay. Bushfire vulnerable communities need to work together in advance, too, to protect their towns from being infiltration by embers and consumed.

These towns also need a protective encirclement to hold an encroaching fire at bay. A vegetation reduced space. Or a belt of fire resistant vegetation such as European deciduous trees. Think of it as a levy.

But, as eminent bushfire researcher Phil Cheney, told the Royal Commission into the 2009 Victorian bushfires, the amount of flammable vegetation and litter within townships can exceed that in the bush around it. Ember-throw from in-town ignitions can cause one-third of house losses.

Communities need to get busy, early, to reduce this in-town fuel that can exacerbate bushfire damage, just as flood threatened towns have been busy, long before the arrival of waters, clearing yards of objects that could be swept along by currents and exacerbate flood damage.

Those who live in areas prone to bushfires – and that means almost everywhere in country and urban-fringe Victoria - need to heed the lesson of the floods: prepare homes and towns well before danger arrives.

Flood threats often give ample time for preparations. Bushfire threats have been cast as coming out of the blue, striking without warning. This is seldom so. The very fact that every Australian summer is a bushfire season gives a six-month lead. Week-ahead weather forecasts give time for top-up safety measures.

Flood emergency spokespersons have unembarrassedly warned that most flood fatalities are caused by people ’doing something stupid’. Bushfire emergency spokespersons rarely suggest personal irresponsibility. There seems to be a taboo.

But to date, every investigations by bushfire researchers has shown that almost all tragedies have been contributed to in some way by those involved. By lack of knowledge or lack of preparation. As flood affected battlers know, are two sides of the same coin.