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Learning to learn from bushfires

Finger pointing, blame and scapegoating is not the answer. Looking forward and understanding the risks is the right way.

In October, a large bushfire created headlines in Australia proclaiming that fire seasons are starting earlier and earlier.

The experts have been telling us this for a decade. Professor Tim Flannery has said: Worryingly, since 2009 we have experienced more days of catastrophic fire danger, and this number will very likely increase in the future.”

What are we doing to prepare for this scenario?

In the last 10 years, one of the ways emergency services, governments and the public learn from bushfires has been through public inquiries such as Royal Commissions.

Emergency services also seek to learn continuously through independently commissioned reviews and operational debriefs. However, governments will likely establish a Royal Commission after a major bushfire.

Unfortunately, the last bushfire Royal Commission — after the 2009 Black Saturday fires — resulted in finger pointing, blame, vilification and scapegoating. We have already seen these characteristics at the start of this year’s fire season, which only keeps us looking backwards when we need to look forward.

We now know enough about bushfire behaviour and how our community and emergency services react that the money, time, energy and political attention devoted to Royal Commissions would be better spent planning for the future.

This is a key finding from my three years of doctoral research, including interviews with 63 Victorian emergency services experts, and an analysis of public inquiry reports, recommendations and comments from politicians and experts since 1939 — Victoria’s first bushfire Royal Commission.

Living on the edge of danger. The devastating Black Saturday bushfires happened within eyesight of Melbourne’s city centre. Picture: David Geraghty/Newspix

If we did look forward, we would accept what we already know — that Victoria is arguably the world’s most bushfire-prone area. We would accept that fire has been part of our landscape for as long as records have been kept. We would also accept the many studies which predict climate change mean more frequent, complex and devastating bushfires.

History has shown that significant and damaging fire events occur regularly in Victoria. Inevitably, we will see another Black Friday, Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday. These fire events can no longer be considered as once-in-a-generation events.

an ingrained belief

Today’s climate conditions increase the likelihood we will experience more major fire events, more regularly.

Yet there seems to be an ingrained belief that somehow we can prevent all bushfires or predict when and where they will happen. The way politicians and the public continue to react after a bushfire shows this false sense of security. Our historical sense of entitlement to own and develop land in fire-prone areas, and all of our technology today, has made that view more prevalent even in the face of ever-increasing bushfire risk.

As the recent Lancefield fire in Victoria reminded us, managing bushfire risk is a risky business. While the media reported the community’s inflammatory anger, saying that “Heads should roll for this”, we need to remember that Royal Commissions have repeatedly found that planned burning has an important role in reducing bushfire risk.

The Royal Commission hearings into the Black Saturday bushfires were streamed to onlookers outside the room. Picture: William West/AFP/Getty Images

Communities need to understand that planned burns can escape ­— particularly when fuel loads are high and weather conditions change. Unfair, insensitive and irresponsible comments by the community and commentators aimed at firefighters prevent us from understanding fire risk.

Such comments are also disrespectful towards those who are seeking to protect communities.

Risk of complacency

If we instead paid attention to what we have already learned, and woke up to the ecological reality of where we are living, we could do so much better. We could make Victoria a much safer place during the bushfire season.

Seventy-six years of learning has led to innovations. We have seen improvements in community bushfire education programs, advances in modelling fire behaviour, more sophisticated approaches to delivering bushfire warnings, an increased emphasis on planned burning to prepare for fire seasons and greater integration across emergency management agencies.

But each fire is unique and we run the risk of becoming complacent if we think previous public inquiries have delivered us to a position of safety.

Lessons from the past: Three major Victorian bushfires – A video produced in 2012 by Victoria’s Country Fire Authority.

Unfortunately, bushfire-prone communities continue to ignore the findings of bushfire royal commissions. A research project led by Professor Jim McLennan, from the Bushfire Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, suggests people need to plan better for bushfire in their community.

Worringly, people are choosing to take a “wait and see” approach to what happens on high fire danger days. Professor McLennan has warned of the dangers of such an approach: “That it is opting for the possibility you will either have to fight for your life or you will be fleeing at the last minute.’’

A system that is more dynamic and realistic

If we had a more sophisticated way of learning and the resources to go with this, we could have a system that is more dynamic and realistic. To do that, we need to make a cognitive shift and move from the expectation that emergency services are completely responsible for preparing for fires. Instead, we need to move to a position where the community is an active participant in making decisions about their safety and property.

This includes community involvement in planning to prevent fires. It also means people living in high-risk areas need to work with emergency services on a year-round basis, rather than viewing bushfires as a summer phenomenon.

Graham Dwyer has spent three years researching the issue: Picture: Chris Hopkins

They need to work with their own communities to get to know and acknowledge the unique risks associated with their area, as every area is so different.

Based on existing knowledge, as Associate Professor Michael Buxton noted in Planning News: “Large numbers of existing dwellings in peri-urban areas around Melbourne (areas which are between the city and countryside) are potential death traps and probably could not be saved when confronted by a bushfire such as that of Black Saturday. Relatively small population increases in small towns, and widespread small lot rural dwelling construction, must inevitably place more people in harm’s way. We know the dangers.”

Read more: How a computer program saved a town

We run the risk of condemning some of these communities in growth area suburbs to a major and devastating fire unless we reflect on the specific risks they face. So much of Victoria’s land area continues to be developed and inhabited even when the bushfire risk is known to be high.

Professor Tim Flannery has spoken about the increased frequency and intensity of bushfires in fire-prone areas. Picture: www.climatecommission.gov.au

As Professor Flannery has noted: “Fire frequency and intensity … is predicted to increase in already fire-prone areas – areas in which a large proportion of the Australian community lives.”

By enabling these areas to be developed is knowingly putting communities in harm’s way of bushfire.

The biggest lesson from looking at 76 years of learning is that the complexities that surround modern-day bushfires are often difficult to explain and so we need to reinterpret accountability and reflect on bushfire risk as everyone’s responsibility.

We can’t keep building out into high bushfire risk areas.

We can’t expect new growth area suburbs not to be impacted by future fire events. We can’t remain in denial about the Victorian landscape. We can’t expect emergency services to be solely responsible for risks that they haven’t created. There is a bigger responsibility that needs to be shared — before the event — between communities, local and state governments and emergency services.

A house destroyed in the Black Saturday bushfires. Picture: Nick Carson via Wikipedia.

The best form of protection is knowledge and acceptance of facts — even when those facts are challenging to how we usually think about land use, ownership and development.

The other key is the behaviour of those who are living and working in high-risk areas. We know this is the case, from decades of learning from fires, now we need to act on this by making the community more accountable.

People in these areas should have a fire plan ready long before the bushfire season. They should know what they’re going to do on a day of high fire danger. They should make decisions which minimise their risk.

The community can do so much to protect themselves and each other. There has been much sensitivity about talking about communities and their role in the future. But more attention has been focused instead on emergency services and the past. The most dangerous thing is to not have the debate about who is accountable and responsible because, ultimately, we all are.

Graham Dwyer’s doctoral research is understanding and learning how organisations make sense and learn from bushfires in Victoria since 1939. He is also affiliated to the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, Australia.

Banner Image: Grassland in the path of a bushfire. Picture: Shutterstock

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