Australia steps up wildfire preparedness

AP News
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Posted: Dec 06, 2009 11:28 AM

Australians thought they were prepared for wildfires. Until Black Saturday.

The infernos that blazed across Victoria state last February were the most destructive in the history of a country that faces more than 50,000 fires in an average year. In the end, 173 people were killed and more than 2,000 homes, destroyed.

As a new fire season begins in Australia's south, residents and state governments alike say they are better prepared. The season typically lasts three to four months around the Australian summer.

"People are definitely more cautious and more prepared now," said Peter Denson, who lost his home in the devastated town of King Lake. His lot is still black with charred trees, though he recently put up a shed on it and plans to rebuild his home.

"I reckon if it looks anything like it did on that Feb. 7, people will take off," he said. "We were told on the radio before that day that it was going to be hot and windy but didn't really think anything of it. Now we'd get out of town the day before."

The scale of the disaster stunned the nation and prompted an evaluation of safety measures and policies.

While authorities stopped short of a forced evacuation policy _ which many Australians would regard as an infringement on their rights _ they created a new "catastrophic" warning level that may frighten people out of their homes.

A 15 million Australian dollar ($14 million) text message warning system has also been set up to alert people of a wildfire emergency, and rural towns in one state have designated safe places to evacuate to.

"We learned that we needed to provide greater clarity to the community so they know how to act, and to give them a greater awareness of the fire danger," said Leigh Miller, prevention services manager of South Australia state's Country Fire Service.

The fire danger system ranks all days in a fire season on a 1 to 100-plus scale, based on temperature, wind and the availability of fuel to burn.

Previously, any day above 50 was categorized as "extreme" and it was left to homeowners to decide whether to evacuate.

The revised system creates three levels above 50, topped with catastrophic, which means a fire may be uncontrollable and says that leaving is the only option for certain survival.

"We're not necessarily going to evacuate people, but this way it is very clear for them what is their safest option," Miller said.

The catastrophic rating was first used in mid-November in the state of South Australia. Since then, two other states have also had catastrophic fire danger days. While large fires did break out near towns on those days, the threats eased with a change in weather.

Miller said the previous rating system was developed to help firefighters manage a fire. The emphasis of the new system is providing the public with enough information to react appropriately.

In the United States, most states with wildfires enforce early mandatory evacuations, which can result in fewer deaths but more property loss.

Australians in rural areas have long used a stay or go policy _ either leaving at the first warning of danger or staying to soak down their property and fight the approaching fire. On Black Saturday, many of the dead had stayed to defend their homes but were caught by quick-moving blazes that changed direction; others died trying to escape by car after staying too long.

Fire management expert Kevin Tolhurst said Australia's new rating system could make people paranoid.

"They need a greater level of awareness but they don't need to be scared," Tolhurst said.

He said the system puts too much focus on weather and instead should be more of a judgment call based also on other factors, such as whether other fires are burning nearby, the topography and the human population in the area.

"People need to be more self-reliant, they need to be able to respond in a sensible and positive way," Tolhurst said. "That requires good information, about the fire danger but also about where to go and when. We need to be building up our ability to get the word out quickly."

He suggested using mobile phones or social networks such as Twitter to disseminate information not only to the public but also in the other direction, with people providing updates that can be used by fire towers and aircraft.

Individuals also are rethinking their own plans.

Homeowners are clearing brush and trees from their properties, planning escape routes and reassessing their stay or go plans.

Some people are still vowing to stay but installing underground bunkers just in case.

Anthony Tratt, owner of Wildfire Safety Bunkers, said he has dozens of orders for his six-person bunkers. Based on American tornado bunkers but engineered for fire safety, the AU$9,900 bunkers can shelter people for up to two hours, much longer than it would take for the main front of a fire to pass.

"The main thing is the people are psychologically prepared to stay and fight," Tratt said. "The bunker is a last resort."