Repeated fire tragedies warning

CLIMATE change is loading the dice for a repeat of catastrophic fires that have caused death and destruction, according to a fire scientist.

WARNING. Climate change is loading the dice for a repeat of catastrophic fires that have caused death and destruction.

WARNING. Climate change is loading the dice for a repeat of catastrophic fires that have caused death and destruction.

The devastating Black Saturday bushfires occurred 10 years ago on February 7, 2009, tearing through more than 400,000 hectares of land, resulting in the deaths of 173 people and scores of homes, farms and businesses razed. 

"I think that both the 1967 Black Tuesday fire in Hobart and the 2009 Black Saturday fires occur on February 7 needs to be recognised," Professor David Bowman said.

Professor Bowman, who is professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania, was one of a number of Australian experts to reflect on what we have learnt in the last 10 years. 

"We are in the peak of fire danger in southern Australia. Fires are burning in Tasmania and Victoria," he said.

"Fire seasons have become longer and have more extreme fire weather, so the peak of the fire season is a particularly dangerous time. Climate change is loading the dice for a repeat of these catastrophic fires. Most people are unaware of the mounting danger of living in dangerously flammable bushland in a period of climate change."

Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre chief executive officer, Dr Richard Thornton said that Black Saturday was a tragic day for many, and is now viewed as a defining moment in the way such emergencies are handled, not just in Australia, but around the world.

"The changes have been comprehensive – in policy, operations, community engagement - and in the way we have invested in learning from adversity," he said. 

"Community information and warnings are now significantly different in both content and tone to ensure that they are heard, based on our research identifying many people under threat of fire – either actual or potential – who process that information in unexpected ways. Fire agencies across the country have learnt from this and have adopted stronger and more specific community messaging, which has undoubtedly resulted in a reduction in loss of life and property in subsequent bushfires.

"This is a long and difficult ongoing task, and the role of research is not just to identify the limitations of current warnings and emergency information, but to help construct a new language that has impact."

Dr Thornton said that even with all these major changes, days like February 7, 2009 are possible again: it wasn't unprecedented then and we will see weather conditions like that again.

Climate change is changing the frequency and severity of this weather, he said.

"We know that on the really bad days like Black Saturday, our fire agencies will not stop these fires any more than they can stop a cyclone or volcano. What we can do is ensure that communities, businesses and governments are more resilient to the impacts of these disasters".

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