Wednesday, January 09, 2013

A view from the ground in a "catastrophic" fire risk area

Yesterday was too hot to post, if not as hot as expected. Tonight just a brief follow up to my post, Hysteria over fire risk. The first is a comment posted here from regular commenter kvd who lives in one fire prone areas. I am including it because of the vivid picture it paints:

Hi Jim

Just a few scattered thoughts on the morning after. As you are aware I live in a fairly isolated valley within the Shoalhaven district, thus my attention was quite 'sharp' throughout yesterday.

1. I found the continuous-15 minute loop of news reports on Sky News and the Weather Channel to be almost unwatchable. And I'm almost sure some of the pictures (must have pictures!) were recycled from other, earlier emergencies. So much 'data', such paucity of relevant information.

2. The RFS website was good from a management-of-State point of view, but was of little relevance as to local conditions. I am very sorry for the residents of Tarcutta et al, but I would have appreciated regular clear updating of my own area - particularly as the Shoalhaven was one of the 'catastrophic' areas.

3. As always, the informal network of scattered neighbours, and neighbours' wives whose husbands were 'firies' was the best most timely and accurate source of information for the 20-30 kms around me. A fact of life, I guess, not a criticism.

4. Talking with my water carrier (my only water is delivered by him or God - during his scheduled delivery scheduled days in advance) he said he had been inundated with water requests on Monday evening, had started at 3 a.m. and wouldn't finish his loads until close to midnight on Tuesday. As well as that, he was on override standby for RFS replenishments if necessary.

5. The ABC news at 7 0'clock referred to the 'Nowra fire' - I assume because Nowra is a lot easier to fit on the tv ticker tape than Wandandian. The fact that the actual fire is 15-20 minutes south by dual lane highway didn't deter from this editorial decision.

6. I, as with most residents in the area, had an evacuation plan in place, complete with tentative accommodation bookings for the animals under my care. This was put in place a week ago, as the reports from WA progressed to South Australia, Tas and Victoria. I am not aware of any government urging or TV exhortations at that point - only common sense at the community level.

All of this without a telephone landline since 23 December, but with very good assistance from Telstra to put in place a redirected satellite phone so that clients on cruise ships and sitting in Austria, and Canada, and the UK could be reassured that what was being breathlessly reported was not the on-ground reality. This is not to suggest no emergency, more just that the hysteria you refer to was 'very real'.


As I said in response, this picture fits with my own experiences. The best responses are always local not central. As on a battlefield, the centre is important in training, in strategy, in building infrastructure. But once the battle starts, everything is local. The role of the centre then shifts from control and command to response to meet greatest needs.

By far the best media coverage yesterday came from the live blogs. This is the ABC example. If you scroll to the bottom and then read up you will get a feeling for the complexity of it all. The main media coverage and the associated press conferences were pretty useful, for they were attempting to meet a mass market, a need for news. Yet a thing like a fire is mainly local.

kvd refers to the satellite phones. Last night a work colleague born in the UK was deluged with emails and Facebook messages wanting to know if she was okay. This deluge was driven by UK media coverage based on Australian reports.

Oh, and on catastrophic?  This again proved a pretty useless descriptor.

I accept that the media has a right to know and an audience to sell too. But every minute spent in meeting this need, in giving generalised warnings to people who were too busy to actually listen, was wasted airtime. To give you an indication of the scale of this, the withdrawal of every political head, the limitation of every official media briefing or press conference to purely factual reports, would not have had a single negative effect yesterday. Probably the opposite. Almost certainly the opposite!


Winton Bates said...

Jim & kvd
I agree.
When I watched TV on Monday night, my first thought was that bureaucrats were just trying to protect their behinds, so that if there was a catastrophe they could say that they had told people to move out of the designated areas.
Perhaps I am too cynical. They may have been so concerned that they thought they were justified in attempting to panic people into leaving. If so, that strategy will not work so well next time!

I thought the advice given during the actual danger period yesterday was far superior to that given the night before.

One further point: a lot of home owners know that if they move a substantial distance away from their properties during periods of major fire risk, they are not likely to be permitted to return to protect their houses if they survive the immediate period after a fire has gone through. That seems to me to be crazy. It must bias decisions in favour of the 'stay and fight'strategy.

Jim Belshaw said...

I'm sorry for my slow response, Winton. You capture the problem of hype very well. This is the second time the cataclysmic warning has been used. So far, it has had no meaning. It's just to specialised (and dramatic) to be helpful!

I agree that the advice given during the actual danger period was better, although kvd's comments are germane here. He was in the red zone.

I hadn't thought of your last point, but I suspect that you are dead right.

Anonymous said...

Actually Jim, Winton was/is also in the red zone and had a much closer view of the 'Nowra fire' than me. Also, I remember quite vividly spending 24 hours about 10-12 years ago prepping my brother in law's residence at Hyams Beach for a fire threat. I bet Winton occasionally walks the track from his home to there, which a fire would do in about 10 minutes.


Jim Belshaw said...

How interesting, kvd. I should have spotted that from Winton's address. Winton, what didyou do, how did your respond, on that day?

Neil said...

Just to complete the set I was also in a red zone -- Illawarra.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil. I will add you in!

Anonymous said...


Can't get this picture out of my head. The small object in the foreground is a house. That would fit my definition of catastrophic:


Jim Belshaw said...

These links will interest you, kvd - and