Black Saturday: What have we learnt?


Dr John Iser writes in Independent Australia about the Black Saturday bushfires.
In the ten years since the bushfires of 2009, many improvements have happened in fire prevention and management. However the fundamental major contributing factors to bushfires - heatwaves combined with drought as a consequence of climate change - have been given only lip-service by many in government. 


News of significant bushfires this week in Grantville, Hepburn and Walhalla is distressing, especially so for local people. That these fires coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires in which many Victorians lost loved ones in one of the most catastrophic fires in Australian history, makes them particularly poignant.

Australians will recall the events of Black Saturday. An intense heatwave started in late January 2009 and continued through early February. After 12 hot days of an average of 35.9°C, the temperature on 7 February was the hottest recorded (46.4°C) in Melbourne. An estimated 374 deaths in Victoria were attributed to this heatwave.

Heat combined with dry conditions and strong winds produced ideal conditions for the fire, which was compounded when several fronts converged on towns north-east of Melbourne, resulting in the loss of 173 lives (later another seven people died from injuries).

The way in which this week’s bushfires have been managed is a testament to the extraordinary fighting spirit of locals and emergency teams at the fire front. It also highlights that Victoria has learnt much from Black Saturday.

Bushfire prevention measures have increased and emergency response strategies to save lives have been refined. Fire management is now better co-ordinated by improved communications and advances in equipment and technology. Communities are co-ordinated to assist those traumatised and displaced with accommodation, food, clothing and friendship.

States now manage mitigation strategies with fuel reduction burns and laws to reduce property exposure and vulnerability. Most states have now also developed heat health plans to reduce heat-related illness and deaths.

However, the fundamental major contributing factors to bushfires – heatwaves combined with drought as a consequence of climate change -  have been given only lip-service by many in government. Even today, federal politicians are still advocating policies which would result in further increasing carbon emissions, mainly through outmoded and heavily polluting power sources such as coal and gas, rather than transitioning to clean energy. 

Although Victoria and many local governments and communities have accepted the evidence and the challenge to reduce emissions in spite of continual federal criticism of their renewable energy program.

The failure of the Federal Government to introduce measures to reduce greenhouse gases is a reckless disregard for the scientific evidence calling for robust and rapid emissions cuts, as well as for the reality that Australians are experiencing through extreme weather events such as bushfires, which are projected to increase. 

The health impacts of bushfires can be severe and long-lasting.

Radiant heat is the biggest killer in a fire, emphasising the need for early evacuation. Even when wearing specialised firefighting apparel, overheating and dehydration can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke which require prevention by cooling breaks and adequate hydration.

Bushfire smoke contains fine particulate matter. When inhaled into the lungs, these tiny particles cause breathing difficulties and can enter the circulation to contribute to heart disease, cardiac arrest and strokes. Smoke also contains multiple oxides and complex compounds which act as respiratory irritants and contribute to asthma and can potentially cause cancer.

Children, the elderly and the disabled are more at risk from bushfires, being more prone to suffer effects from smoke and heat and requiring assistance to avoid being trapped. Populations in major cities can be at risk as smoke can travel hundreds of kilometres from a fire front. Also, smoke from fuel reduction burns highlights the dilemma posed by bushfire preventive management.

Following the loss of loved ones, pets and property, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder can follow. After Black Saturday, residents in the bushfire zone were still suffering stress years after. Solastalgia, a sense of loss of a familiar environment, contributes to grief and depression.

Bushfires have an enormous economic cost, too, particularly in Victoria which has a higher economic burden from bushfires than any other Australian state. Black Saturday cost Victoria at least $4.4 billion.

The loss of carbon in vegetation to the atmosphere adds to greenhouse gases, as does the loss of old growth forests which bank carbon and provide the multiple environmental benefits of forestation. Bushfires are another threat to biodiversity which is being attacked from multiple angles. Forest regrowth will struggle with diminishing rainfall and more frequent heatwaves.

Doctors recognise the adverse health effects of increased bushfire risk from climate change and urge our Federal Government to commit to widespread action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s the best prescription for lessening the incidence of bushfires, particularly those such as the devastating Black Saturday fire and the trail of tragedy it left behind.

Read the full article here.


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