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Research must advance to keep us safe from natural hazards

This opinion piece originally appeared in The Weekend Australian on 9 January 2016.

Although it is important not to become complacent, and there is plenty left in this bushfire season yet, we may have just seen evidence that as a community we are beginning to mature in our relationship with living with fire. The Wye River bushfire along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road had fire conditions nearly as bad as they could be. The bushfire flared on an extreme day in summer, in one of Victoria’s busiest tourist areas, after a prolonged stretch with little rain, in a community of predominately light wooden housing built right amongst a thick eucalypt forest. There was one road in and one road out. It was also Christmas Day – a day for spending with family, and a day where many might not have been focused on the threat. All the elements for a catastrophe were there.

The outcome – as heartbreaking as it was, with 116 homes destroyed – was possibly as good as could reasonably be expected. This can be attributed to a fundamental readjustment of thinking in the emergency service and land management agencies over the past decade, based on sound science and research. We thought we understood how to deal with bushfire but Black Saturday showed there was still so much we did not know. We needed to dig deeper into the problems to get better bushfire knowledge. Not just about fire behaviour, but the more complex problems of weather, firefighting, communications, fatigue management and decision making.

Our studies after major bushfires - including Black Saturday in 2009, the Warrumbungle, Blue Mountains, and Tasman Peninsula fires in 2013, the Perth Hills in 2014 and Sampson Flat in 2015 – show that many people are still not prepared for a bushfire and make hasty last-minute decisions.

We have learnt much about why people act in a certain way and make decisions under the extreme stress of a natural hazard. Because of this, we now have a more realistic understanding of what it means to defend a house and what it is like fleeing through smoke. Clearly if you are not there when the fire gets there you are not at risk, but it does place the house at greater risk. Residents are heeding the warnings of our emergency services, they are getting out in advance, and they are living.

Warning messages are now more nuanced, more targeted, and better timed – thanks to research. It is recognised that warning messages must get to all sectors of society including those working, those at home, passing through the area, or down the street. Messages must also be heard by the young, the old, the infirm, the non-English speaker, and those disconnected from their community.

We know preparation can make a big difference to the ultimate outcome, and sharing the responsibility for this is key. Everyone in a fire or flood zone has a role, not just the emergency services. If you are in an area that is likely to be affected, you have to make specific decisions and take specific actions. No one has the luxury of standing back and letting others decide and act for them.  

Mitigation will produce safer houses and save money – as highlighted by the federal government’s Productivity Commission in May 2015. Mitigating a disaster is always a better option than recovery, and that while retrofitting of existing buildings and building back better is a goal following any event, the reality is we currently see very little of this happening.

Post disaster is also critical. After a fire destroys, or a flood inundates homes, there are always calls to rebuild. Yes, it is important to rebuild, but rebuilding better is the answer. We know how houses burn, and why some survive a bushfire. We must question whether building in some areas is wise. It may be best not to rebuild in some areas because the risk is unacceptably high. Our knowledge of how to build new houses to resist some of the hazards we face has increased dramatically in the past few decades. In the long run, this a much smarter choice. However, short term thinking is often rife as the imperative to restore vital links and infrastructure take precedence over longer term planning.

However, people do need to live somewhere – we can only restrict against natural hazards to a certain extent. We need to come up with some equitable solutions where properties can be built to an extent that they will withstand a majority of events, while recognising that on bad days – whether that is a bad fire day, or in the event of a 1-in-100 year flood, or whatever level of risk that we choose to accept - we recognise that sometimes we will lose homes.

There is no silver bullet for bushfire safety, or indeed for all natural hazards. Increasing the safety of those in the country and on the fringes of our towns and cities is everyone’s responsibility.

National research is having an impact on the safety of Australian communities, not just in bushfire but across all natural hazards. This is because we have been asking the difficult and complex questions.

This list is not exhaustive, but how about we tackle these big questions? Should we build houses in high risk areas? What is the right balance between technology and computer modelling of hazards and human control? How can we better manage the Australian bush – public and private - all year round to make it safer in bushfire and flood season? How can we better resource a skilled emergency response force, heavily reliant on seasonal volunteers, in a landscape becoming more natural hazard prone? As the earth warms and hazard events tend to more extreme, where exactly will most of the impacts be felt? What can we do better now to ensure communities get back onto their feet quickly after disaster strikes?

Bushfires late last year in Western Australia and South Australia and had destructive and tragic outcomes, flooding in the Northern Territory has one confirmed death, with another missing, presumed dead, over the holiday period, while a flash flood in Victoria this week claimed another life, and further afield, tornados and earthquakes claimed multiple lives. Perhaps it was the relatively long lead up time to the Wye River fire that allowed for better preparation and decision, while the short sharp hazard is where we are most vulnerable, and hence where we now need to turn our attention.

We must continue to identify what we do not know – that is the role of research and the mission of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.

It has only been through the concerted research efforts, over many years covering many disciplines, that have we managed to make these changes. An outcome that has only been possible as the result of investment from all levels of government, especially the federal government’s Cooperative Research Centres Program. It is critical that we do not go down a single line of thought, a complex social, political and geophysical problem cannot have a single solution. It is important to recognise the importance of innovation in the way we deliver to our communities, and be open to change in the way we do things.

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