What you will find on this page: what it is like when fire meets the urban fringe (video); getting ready for bushfire easier than you think (video); mental preparation and emotional response (video); understanding fire weather (video) WANTING MORE DETAIL? more videos: computer program that saved a town; predicting the path of bushfires; Phoenix RapidFire; Fire, Space & Time; bushfire recovery for private land; stakeholder input into bushfire management planning; busting bushfire myths – expert briefing; latest in bushfire research; ARTICLES; Joan Webster’s articles; REPORTS; Learnings from Wye River fires (video); Black Saturday (video) (links in blue)
FireAware Network – Resources
“Research into the impacts of bushfires in Australia indicates that approximately 85% of house loss occurs within 100 metres of bushland.” If you wish to know more feel free to access the following resources….
What is it like when fire meets the urban fringe?
Media footage from the 2003 Canberra bushfires mostly unedited: Video showing the bushfire emergency in Canberra on 18 January 2003 – During that time all urban & rural fire units across the city set up defensive positions around the suburbs – The fires were impacting both the northern and southern districts of the city…Footage was taken by Channel Nine cameraman, Richard Moran during a ride through the fires with ACT Fire Brigade District Officer Darrell Thornthwaite and the crew of Bravo 3.Video length 45 minutes Source: YouTube
By taking 20 minutes with your family to discuss what you’ll do during a fire, you could save their lives, as well as your home.
Source: NSW Rural Fire Service
For those wishing to go into more detail about fire behaviour and risk
January 2, 2015: An ominously hot Friday at the height of a bone-dry Australian summer. Bill Taylor remembers the wind, a “stiff northerly”, as one harbinger of the trouble ahead. Just before noon, Mr Taylor, farmer and fire captain of Moyston, in Victoria’s western district, received a pager message that a fast-moving grass fire was bearing down on the town and its 350 residents. “By the time I got there it had progressed about 400m and was 50m wide,” he recalls. “It jumped the road and we’d lost it. “It got into a paddock of old Phalaris (grass). Two of our trucks were on site, but the flames were rearing above where the firefighters were standing. They had to back off due to the radiant heat.” Access full article here
To find out more about the above software program, Kevin Tolhurst Bushfire CRC project leader from the University of Melbourne discusses the PHOENIX RapidFire fire spread model at the 2013 Fire Behaviour Symposium.Published on Apr 3, 2014
Kevin Tolhurst has spent thirty years studying the role, impact and management of fire in the Victorian environment. In the Wombat Forest, 100 kms north-west of Melbourne, he reflects on the need to appreciate fire as a defining force and presence and to develop a stronger knowledge of the environments in which we live.
A landholder and an ecologist describe how the Black Saturday bushfires affected native vegetation and how the vegetation has regenerated since the fires. This video provides advice to landholders on how native vegetation should be managed after fire.
The Barwon-Otway bushfire risk landscape team convened a Bushfire Strategy Advisory Group (BSAG) to facilitate stakeholder input into the Strategic Bushfire Risk Assessment & Strategy Selection (SBRASS) project from late 2013 to mid-2015. As part of the project, the Advisory Group identified a range of options to manage bushfire risk, and values of interest that may be positively or negatively impacted by bushfire. The Advisory Group then participated in a structured decision making process to identify their preferred management strategies, the outcomes of which can now be used to inform the development of future fuel management strategies that reflect stakeholder aspirations and values of importance.
In this video, DELWP Analysis and Monitoring Team Leader (Barwon-Otway) Tim Gazzard, Forrest Neighborhood House’s Gillian Brew, Parks Victoria’s Kate McMahon, and Surf Coast Shire’s Peter Ashton discuss the importance of engaging to better understand community values, increase people’s understanding of bushfire risk, and take a more integrated approach to bushfire fuel management. Published on Nov 18, 2015
Busting Bushfire Myths – Part 1
Busting Bushfire Myths – Part 2
The University of Melbourne’s Creswick Campus has held a series of seminar’s relating to research into bushfire and fire management through 2016. Here are a couple:
Dr Trent Penman, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, The University Of Melbourne: Future climates are predicted to be hotter and drier creating an increase in bad fire weather. Many predictions about future fire regimes have been made based on fire weather alone and ignore the other key contributors to fire occurrence and extent, namely ignitions, fuel load and fuel moisture. In this talk, I will present recent research in which we have attempted to overcome these limitations in order to predict future fire regimes in southern Australia. We found that while there are areas in which fire extent and frequency will increase, there are significant areas where we predict a decrease in fire frequency. Implications for land and conservation management will be discussed.
Dr Kevin Tolhurst, School of Ecosystem and Forest Science, The University of Melbourne: The University of Melbourne has a Strategic Plan which uses the concept of a triple helix – the intertwining of teaching, research and engagement. This concept is very apt for bushfire science since all three activities are necessary if we are to see improvements in sustainable land management.
In this seminar, marking the retirement of Kevin Tolhurst, Kevin will reflect on what has been achieved in bushfire science and what future directions might lead to more sustainable land management where bushfires are an essential part of the environment, and can both enhance and degrade the natural and built environments. Kevin will argue that the process of bushfire management can be divided into five components, including the “triple helix”, which must be advanced together to most effectively live in a fire-prone environment. The five components are: research (knowledge capture and understanding), development (knowledge transfer, tools, technology), application (policy, plans, operations), experience (skills, retained knowledge), and monitoring and review.
Like the strands of a rope, bushfire management is dependent on many stands working together to give it strength. It is useful to review how strong our bushfire management rope is and how we might best strengthen it given the increasing pressures of climate change, increasing pest plants and animals, and landscape fragmentation. In this seminar, Kevin will try to use his 40 years of experience to look into the future and provide some direction.
Learning to learn from bushfires
November 2015, Graham Dwyer, Doctoral Researcher, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne
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?
Joan Webster has 25 years experience as news reporter/photographer and journalist, which gained for her a reputation for ‘getting things done’. This characteristic surfaced very young – aged only six – leading to the Australian Fire Protection Association’s Community Service Award, 1990, and culminating in 2010 with the Order of Australia Medal for her 40 years plus work on bushfire safety.
Joan Webster’s groundbreaking first book on bushfire safety, The Complete Australian Bushfire Book (1986) was shortlisted for the BHP Pursuit of Excellence Award 1987. This, and its subsequent The Complete Bushfire Safety Book and ready reference Essential Bushfire Safety Tips, have been acclaimed by Bushfire authorities throughout Australia and overseas; readers say they have helped save their lives and homes. Many of the concepts now familiar in official bushfire brochures were originally devised by Joan Webster and published in this book’s first edition, in 1986.
Articles by Joan Webster OAM (sourced from Joan’s website)
Bushfires and Bureaurocrats Joan Webster OAM, Quadrant Online, February 16, 2014
To Flee or Not to Flee? Joan Webster OAM, Natural Hazards Observer, Colorado, USA, September 2013
Unearthing Fire Clues From the Ashes Joan Webster OAM, The Age, February 15, 2013
The Burning Issue Joan Webster OAM, Canberra Times January 19, 2013
Expert Slams Advice Joan Webster OAM, Canberra Times, January 12, 2013
Beware the Official Advice on Bushfire Safety Joan Webster OAM, the Age, Dec 30, 2013
Our Bushfire ‘Experts’ Have Got it Wrong Joan Webster OAM, The Age, October 26, 2012; Sydney Morning Herald, October 25, 2012
CSIRO report released Wye River and Separation Creek bushfires
Other key factors identified in the report as contributing to house loss include:
- No distinct border between the forest and urban areas of the township with widespread established tree coverage spread across residential properties
- Extensive surface litter provided a near continuous flammable fuel bed
- Ignition of heavy fuels such as plastic water tanks, building materials, small garden sheds, boats and kayaks stored under or adjacent to houses
- Strong evidence of house-to-house fire spread despite the generally large distances between buildings of up to 12m
- Timber retaining walls provided a direct threat to buildings and adjacent fuel elements
- Positioning and storage of LPG pressure vessels
Indicators of Fire Vulnerability: Risk Factors in Victorian Settlements Kimberley; Alan March; Justin Leonard; Glenn Newnham
March 2014, Recent research shows that as metropolitan and major regional area areas grow quickly in Australia, proportionally greater amounts of land are being developed as fragmented, low density peri‐urban settlements (Low Choy, Sutherland, Gleeson, & Sipe, 2008). This development form will expose increasing numbers of houses to bushfire threats (Buxton, Haynes, Mercer, & Butt, 2011). Ensuring that new settlements can deal with bushfire threats is a central element of ensuring Australian settlements’ long‐ term resilience, particularly as the incidence and intensity of extreme weather increases (Lucas, Hennessy, Mills, & Bathols, 2007). Access full report here
Bushfire risk at the rural/urban interface
Blanchi R.M., Leonard J.E., Leicester R.H. CSIRO CMIT, Highett, Victoria ; Bushfire CRC
Abstract: Living in a bushfire prone area provides many lifestyle advantages but also presents a risk to life and property. This paper describes the development of a model to predict the potential risk of loss of a specific house at the rural/urban interface.
The three fundamental mechanisms of attack have been considered: embers, radiation and flame contact. The spatial and temporal properties of these attack mechanisms are combined with our evidence based knowledge of house loss. The probabilistic model takes into account a wide range of parameters such as vegetation, climatic conditions, topography, building design, human behaviour and other infrastructure elements close to the house. Each of these elements may play a role in mitigating or contributing to the risk of building loss.
The model uses the principle of aggregated probability of failure of each object that contributes to the risk of house loss. The outcomes of the model provides a risk estimation for any given building/environment/people scenario and allow us to determine the level of risk mitigation achieved by a specific strategy or combination of strategy. The application of this model will be tailored to fellow researchers, community education, policy developers, town planning, and regulation reform. Access full paper here
Human Settlement Fire Vulnerability
March 2014, Melbourne School of Design (Melb Uni): Climate Change Adaptation: Suitability Indices of Human Settlement Fire Vulnerability. In the context of increasing fire risks resulting from climate change, metropolitan and many regional area in Australia are growing quickly. This growth is exposing increasing numbers of houses to bushfire threats. There is a need for improved bushfire assessment tools at the strategic planning level for existing and proposed human settlements to ensure that new housing is appropriately located and designed, and that existing settlements facing high fire risks can be improved. Current design guides tend to focus on individual buildings, giving little comprehensive attention to the arrangements of settlements overall, a form of maladaptation which may actually encourage increased amounts of settlement in areas of high bushfire incidence. This project developed an index of fire vulnerability to assess existing and projected settlement areas, extant policy, and to guide improved adaptation to climate change.Access full report here
Learning from 100 years of bushfire loss data
20 December 2016, ECOS, CSIRO, …….Current building regulations are only designed to be effective only up to ‘extreme’ conditions, so, as Leonard puts it: “All bets are off, even for a regulated house when you get to catastrophic.” “In a sense, we’re resigning ourselves to the inevitability that when we have those days we’re going to lose thousands of houses and hopefully only a handful of people.” Future-proofing our homes, now This scenario may become even less palatable as the changing climate brings an increase in the likelihood of catastrophic weather conditions. For many parts of Victoria, catastrophic weather conditions are roughly 1-in-20-year conditions, meaning that in any one bushfire season there is about a 5 per cent likelihood that such catastrophic bushfire conditions will arise. By 2050, that likelihood could increases to about 15 per cent, says Leonard, and by 2100 about 30 per cent. “The inevitability that a big fire will run on that day is nearly absolute – it just depends where in the landscape it’s going to turn up,” he says. Read More here
December 2012, CSIRO Report: Life and house loss database description and analysis Final report. This report describes the development and analysis of a dataset containing bushfire related life loss in Australia over the past 110 years (1901-2011). Over this time period 260 bushfires have been associated with a total of 825 known civilian and firefighter fatalities. This dataset encompasses the spatial, temporal and localised context in which the fatalities have occurred (known as the Attorney General Department’s (AGD) NFDRS Life Loss database). This database was developed to provide a firm evidence base for which an Australian National fire danger rating system can be developed. It represents the most complete set of known bushfire fatalities and the most comprehensive spatially and temporally correlated dataset of these fatalities ever assembled. The analysis phase of the project has focused on the characterisation of the relationship between fatal exposure location, fire arrival, weather conditions (using the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) and its individual components), proximity to fuel, and fatality activity and decision making leading up to the death. Access full report here
NCCARF: Bushfires are extremely unpredictable climate-related events. They already pose a significant threat to life and property. Adapting to an increased risk will mean improving existing preparedness and response activities. Weather conditions that lead to bushfires are expected to worsen with climate change. Even under current conditions, complex and large bushfires can have catastrophic outcomes. Five principal adaptation challenges emerge from the research evidence: Read More here
Issues in Community Bushfire Safety
December 2011: Report Number 4: 2011 Issues in Community Bushfire Safety: Analyses of Interviews Conducted by the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Research Task ForceSchool of Psychological Science La Trobe University. Access full report here
EXTRACT: Section 6 Concluding Discussion Bushfire Survival Plans
Bushfire Survival Plans: It was clear from the content of the transcripts that householders’ understandings of what constitutes a meaningful bushfire survival plan differed greatly. Many residents of isolated rural properties who intended to stay and defend had quite sound plans and had prepared accordingly. Many residents who lived in town streets and planned to stay and defend failed to take into account possible loss of electric power and town water supply. The overwhelming majority of bushland urban interface (‘suburban’) residents had never seriously considered the possibility of bushfire threat: they were, effectively, ‘blind’ to the implications of adjacent bushland and thus had no bushfire survival plan.
It seems from the transcripts that in the absence of a major change in community perceptions of bushfire risk, very few residents in at-risk areas are likely to leave and go somewhere safer the day before a predicted day of total fire ban. Based on the transcripts of the few who did so in light of the fire danger weather warnings prior to 7 February 2009, those most likely to do this are people who are elderly or have young children and have a second residence elsewhere, such as a major city.
It was also clear from the content of the interview transcripts that there was a general failure by residents to understand the necessary requirements of a sound plan to leave safely under the stress of potential bushfire threat. Indeed, for most survivors who did not attempt to defend, their ‘plan’ seemed to consist of an intention to simply not be there if a fire threatened. Prior household consideration and discussion of suitable places to go, alternative routes to travel, what would constitute the trigger for safe departure, and what preparations were needed to make leaving safe and minimally inconvenient mostly had not happened. In many households, the needs of pets and livestock, young children, and elderly/handicapped members of a household had not been thought about.
Preparing, Staying and Defending: The overall impression created by the transcripts of ‘stay and defenders’ was that most had planned and prepared for a low to moderate intensity bushfire which could be dealt with quickly and easily without undue risk. We speculate that such an anticipatory understanding was created, at least in part, by a decade of television news images of residents wearing shorts, singlets and thongs, easily subduing flames of about half a metre in height using a plastic garden hose. There appeared to have been a general failure to appreciate the potential threat posed by a high intensity bushfire on a day of extreme fire danger weather, and ways in which houses are vulnerable to sustained ember attack associated with very strong winds.
In general, household bushfire ‘human-machine defence systems’ were brittle, and most failed to a greater or a lesser extent in face of high-intensity bushfire attacks lasting 30 minutes to more than an hour. Mains electrical power and water supplies failed. Plastic pipes and fittings melted due to radiant heat, petrol driven pumps motors stopped as fuel vaporised in carburettors, plastic water tanks melted, defenders got injured and/or became incapacitated through fatigue. Defenders were distracted from their primary survival-focussed tasks by concerns about the safety of less-able household members.
A robust fall-back plan to survive if defence failed and the house burned was rare. There seemed to be a generally low level of prior appreciation of the lethally destructive effects of radiant heat from a bushfire.
Notwithstanding, there were some accounts of successful household defence that demonstrated survival-enhancing behaviour under adversity. Most of these accounts described an acknowledgment of the high level of threat, extensive long and short-term preparation (including back-up plans if defence failed). The interviewees also reported high levels of personal and outcome efficacy (i.e. they were confident in their own abilities and their preparations), they remained task-focused and identified emerging threats, and were able to set aside potentially distracting thoughts or negative emotions like fear/anxiety. These interviewees were mostly rural land owners and those with some prior bushfire, or closely related (e.g. military), knowledge and/or experience.
Leaving Safely: As suggested above, an overall impression created by the transcripts of ‘leavers’ was that few had thought beyond a simplistic notion of ‘if a bushfire threatens we are out of here’. Another overall impression is that the typical ‘plan-in-action’ of those who ultimately left involved ‘waiting and seeing’, without having any clear idea of what they were waiting for and what they might expect to see that would spur them into action. A prior plan which comprised a checklist of preparations for leaving; agreed alternative safe havens and travel routes; and an agreed trigger set of circumstances which would initiate leaving, was rare.
While there were few fatalities on the day associated with leaving late in vehicles (n = 7, 4% of fatalities: Handmer, O’Neil, & Killalea, 2010, p. 24), some survivors’ accounts of their journeys leave a disturbing picture of ‘what might have been’ if even a single large tree had fallen and blocked any one of several major escape roads used by residents fleeing at the last minute.
Several of those interviewed indicated a belief, presumably based on bushfire safety messages, that it was dangerous to be on the roads in a bushfire. For some, paradoxically, this belief appeared to be a factor in delaying departure and potentially increasing their actual risk when evacuation became unavoidable. While there were fatalities associated with vehicle accidents and entrapments (see above), others survived because they used their vehicles as mobile last-resort ‘fire shelters’ in locations relatively clear of fuel (McLennan, 2010).
Location-Specific Issues Concerning Expectations and Bushfire Survival: While not coded for, two important issues emerged from the transcripts related to two specific locations. Several transcripts of interviews with Marysville survivors expressed the view that there was a widespread belief among residents that ‘Marysville would never burn’, largely because there was no prior history of bushfires ever impacting the town (the town was not impacted by the 1939 Black Friday fires). Several transcripts of interviews with householders in the Kinglake area indicated that many residents believed that any fire which broke out on 7 February 2009 would be a repetition of events associated with the bushfire which occurred in 2006: slow rate of spread, ample warning from authorities, and plenty of time to prepare properties or to leave safely (—and ultimately this fire did not threaten life or property).
20 December 2016, ECOS CSIRO. What Wye River can teach us about building for bushfires. On Christmas Day 2015, the weather conditions around southern coastal Victoria weren’t particularly notable. There had been a long dry spell, and a total fire ban had been forecast, but otherwise there was little to forewarn of what was to come. That day, a bushfire swept through the small coastal township of Wye River and destroyed more than 100 houses – 80 per cent of the town. Thanks to early warnings and a fast-acting community, no lives were lost. But the devastating event has revealed some significant flaws in our interpretation and implementation of bushfire regulations, as well as highlighting opportunities for improvement. Some of the houses that burned in the Wye River fire had been built to bushfire regulations. There is a misconception that this makes them bushfire-proof, and this reveals a basic flaw in our understanding of the aims of these regulations. The goal of bushfire building regulations is ultimately to prevent loss of life, by making a house that can withstand bushfire long enough that its occupants can escape safely after the fire front has passed. But no house is an island. It is surrounded by other houses, by landscaping, by add-ons, by natural debris, by the everyday bits and pieces of life, and by an environment whose aesthetic appeals to its owners. None of these elements are covered by bushfire building regulations, and each one of these can significantly amplify the impact of a bushfire on a house and a community. Read More here
- Access full CSIRO report here
- Access Wye River Guideline for Building in Bushfire Prone Areas here
- Access WyeSep Connect website which is the primary online portal that supports resettlement at Wye River and Separation Creek, by sharing and sourcing information, news, events, achievements and challenges.
- 26 April 2016 Expert Panel Review into rebuilding of Wye River and Separation Creek
2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission
July 2010, Final Report, preface extract: This report is an important part of securing the memory of the fires. The first volume describes the origins and course of the 15 fires that wrought the greatest harm on 7 February and the response to them. It also tells the stories of the 173 people who died. Volume II looks at what lessons can be learnt from these experiences—how we can reduce the risk and impacts of fire and minimise fire-related loss of life in future. Volume III reports on the Commission’s administration and processes. Volume IV reproduces the statements of the 100 lay witnesses who gave personal accounts of their experiences in the fires in late January and February and in their aftermath. The stories told by these people grounded our work. They continually reminded all at the Commission that bushfires deeply affect people and communities and that their needs and safety must be at the forefront of government policy….
Victoria has a long, sometimes devastating, history of fire. The conditions on 7 February gave rise to particularly destructive bushfires. These very intense fires share some features that set them apart from less intense fires. Very dry fuels and strong surface winds resulted in erratic fire behaviour and the development of strong convective activity capable of lifting firebrands such as burning bark high in the convection column. Strong upper air winds transported burning bark downwind for many kilometres, resulting in long-distance fire spotting. Spotting was an important factor in the spread of some fires. Firebrands carried by the strong winds spread from one ridge top to the next in areas of broken terrain. They were carried across sparse eaten-out pasture or areas where grass was less than fully cured and might otherwise have arrested the fires’ spread. Although they varied in their size and impacts, the most severe of the 7 February fires the Commission examined shared a number of features:
- Rapid fire spread followed ignition, which responding crews could not contain.
- Fires crowned in forested areas, which made them impossible for ground crews to control.
- Powerful convection columns were generated above the fires.
- Extensive forward spotting occurred as a result of the fuel type, the weather conditions and the topography.
- Late in the day a wind change altered the direction of fire spread and extended the firefront
Investigation of bushfire attack mechanisms resulting in house loss in the act bushfire 2003 Bushfire CRC Report
April 2005 Raphaele Blanchi and Justin Leonard
Preliminary studies of the damaged area around Canberra revealed unusually high impact levels of both wind and fire attack, with a significant loss of houses. It appears that most houses were ignited by either ember attack or house-to-house ignition. These ignitions were exacerbated by high localised winds that damaged houses in some parts of Canberra during the fire event, thus making them more vulnerable to ember attack.
The insured losses in the Canberra fires were comparable to the losses on Ash Wednesday with inflation taken into account, even though the number of houses lost was much less. In terms of insured losses, Ash Wednesday stands as Australia’s largest bushfire event and sixth largest natural disaster. If the Ash Wednesday losses are indexed to inflation to today’s prices, it represents a total insured loss of $300–350m (Walker 2002), with 1511 houses lost (Leonard & McArthur 1999).
Canberra’s total insurance loss approaches this level, with approximately 516 houses destroyed. There is a considerable increase in the asset value at the urban interface that needs to be considered during future policy development. Thankfully, life loss has not followed the same trend, with 75 lives lost in the Ash Wednesday fires compared to 4 lives lost in the ACT fires.
However, structural loss so deep into the urban area interface has not been observed since the Hobart fires of 1967 (Leonard & McArthur 1999), which resulted in 62 deaths, and destroyed 1300 homes and 128 major buildings, and was the seventeenth largest insurance loss in Australia’s history (IDRA) (McArthur 1968; Walker 2002). Access full report here
House Select Committee on the recent Australian bushfires
On 26 March 2003 the House of Representatives established a Select Committee to inquire into the recent Australian bushfires. The Committee invited interested persons and organisations to make submissions addressing the terms of reference and it held public hearings around Australia. The committee tabled the report of its inquiry on Wednesday 5 November 2003. The tabling of the report concluded the committee’s work and the committee was then dissolved.The Australian government presented its response to the report on Thursday 15 September 2005. Access full report here