Fire, flood and cyclone - the learnings are the same

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Monday, February 7, 2011 - 10:28pm

It has been a comparatively quiet season for fire for most states so far, although even over the last week fires have been a real threat to some communities, particularly in Western Australia and Victoria.

And yet what we learnt from the Black Saturday fires of two years ago - about better communicating with residents by providing timely and accurate warnings and information - has been crucial to the management of the many floods, cyclones, and other natural hazard emergencies we have seen since.

This is an unanticipated but welcome consequence of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission that so heavily emphasised the centrality of people to the task of emergency management. A major set of Royal Commission recommendations focussed on the need to improve communication and warnings to communities.

It is really not just about fire, water or wind any more – emergency management is now about people.

This month we have seen parts of Australia flooded and buffeted by high winds and other parts burning under severe winds and high temperatures. While cyclone Yasi was bearing down upon Far North Queensland and we watched others around the country continue to clear away flood damage, an 8000 hectare bushfire was threatening small towns and infrastructure in south-east Victoria. This week Western Australia has had more bushfires.

This situation is entirely familiar. When Black Saturday fires were burning in Victoria in early 2009 parts of northern NSW and Queensland were also in flood.

This may be long term climate change or the more temporary phase of La Nina, or a combination of both, but what we do know for certain is that the history of Australia has long been shaped by fire, flood, wind and drought. One thing is certain - every year we will have fires.

There will be inquiries into the recent floods and cyclones, just like there were investigations into the Black Saturday fires and many other tragic bushfire events in this nation’s history. These will work out who did what and when, and will recommend many vital changes, but we also need to ask more fundamental questions about how we can be more innovative in facing these threats.

If we accept we are a land of regular extreme natural hazards then we must accept that the roles of prevention, preparedness, response and recovery of these extreme events should be a core part of our government budgets, never a rolling series of one-off responses.

And it is the first of these four roles that is the most overlooked – the prevention. While we rightly attend to our fire fighting equipment and build levies, and pour funds into rebuilding lives and communities, prevention is often viewed too narrowly. In a land of inevitable fire and flood, prevention is about reducing the impacts through a better understanding of the science behind these events and of the decision making processes of residents and emergency managers.

Those learnings don’t come easy and they don’t come quickly.  Often we see swift decisions to purchase more equipment or rebuild a building. This is understandable and necessary but may be more costly, in dollars and human suffering, in the long run if we don’t do it right.  What is more difficult but more important in the long run is to understand how to prevent many individuals making tragic errors of judgement in the midst of a firestorm and deciding on how best to rebuild communities in bushfire zones or on floodplains with a higher level of safety.

Only with an analysis based upon scientific knowledge and experience will we make solid decisions on how to make our communities more resilient to the fire and other natural hazard events in the future.