As I write this, the state of Victoria in Australia, is again facing significant weather extremes. It’s hot with a shifting wind pattern that keeps us all on high alert. There has been rainfall in parts of our state but not the type of rain a firefighter would hope for. It’s the type that causes life threatening flash flooding and landslides. It’s also filled with soil that has been picked up by the strengthening northerly winds only to return to earth in ‘mud rain’. It’s rusty red and hard to clean. Amongst all of this, the bushfire impacted parts of our state have experienced little to no rain and fires continue to burn. These fires are again creating their own weather. It’s the sort of fire behaviour that challenges even the most experienced practitioners. It’s become a familiar story this summer.
Much has been written about Australia’s 2019/2020 fire season; the unprecedented fire behaviour, the ‘new normal’ of Australian climate, the long road to recovery for our communities and indeed the impact on our Australian way of life. For the most part this debate has been welcome – fire agencies are constantly looking at ways to improve – however there isn’t a single culprit or easy solution to this problem.
And just as there have been challenges – there have been successes this fire season – the protection of life and property that would have otherwise been lost, the stories of community adaptation and the dogged determination that epitomises the Australian character.
Iconic photos of 4,000 people sheltering on the beach in the tiny Victorian town of Mallacoota were published worldwide while our firefighters fought the blaze house to house, street to street in the township. Unfortunately as one of the most bushfire-prone areas in the world, these scenes may become far more common.
We know that climate change is increasing the frequency, severity and timing of dangerous bushfire weather conditions in Victoria. As the climate warms, events such as extreme heat and drought are likely to compound, leading to more fires with more extreme fire behaviours. We saw that in the devastating 2009 fires which killed 173 people and destroyed over 2,000 homes. We knew we must adapt.
Since 2009, a key focus across all agencies in Victoria has been to improve the interagency warnings and advice systems. VicEmergency was created by Emergency Management Victoria as both an app and a website which allows users to set up ‘watch zones’ to receive real time information on a range of different emergencies at the same time as first responders.
It was an extraordinary interagency effort over a number of years to bring this project to life and this season that critical communication tool has undoubtedly saved lives. Almost 2.5 million people now have the app downloaded on their smart phone, giving them real-time information, at the same time as fire responders.
We also have strong partnerships with radio stations who must broadcast these warnings on air.
The warnings are hyper-localised, clear and unambiguous, escalating from advice and community information to ‘watch and act’ and finally an emergency warning.
Well in excess of 3,000 localised messages have been issued directly to hundreds of communities since our fire season commenced in November.
The last resort message advises: “You are in danger and need to act immediately to survive. The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately. It is too late to leave.”
The magnitude of what that means to people on the ground is not lost on me.
The prolonged nature of this fire season has meant that within the space of a few dozen kilometres, while one community is receiving emergency warnings and preparing for impact, another down the road has already had the fire pass through and is now in a relief and recovery phase.
To coordinate individual community needs through preparation, emergency response and relief at the same time has required a monumental interagency effort of which I think we can all be proud.
With many more weeks of summer to come, and indeed many more months and years of recovery, we will need to continue collaborating and adapting to the needs of those communities.
In the longer term, it’s accepted by all that we need to continually evolve and improve our way of co-existing with our fire-prone environment. With the enormous progress made across the sector in recent years, Victoria is well placed and ready for the challenge.
For more information, go to www.cfa.vic.gov.au