In Saturday's post, Saturday Morning Musings - fires, land management & risk, I discussed Australia's record with bushfires and bushfire management.
I was very critical of the way Australia handles its fire warning system, adding a catastrophic code red category after the bad Victorian fires in which so many lost their lives. I thought then and still do that the additional category represented over-kill.
You will get a feel for this from this story in The Illawarra Mercury: Get out now, commissioner urges most at risk. Hat tip to Neil Whitfield for the link. I quote from the story where the bushfire chief is cited:
“If you live in bushland or an isolated area where there is a catastrophic fire danger rating your only option is to leave early. You could move to a built up area, away from bushland, such as the centre of a town.’’
The Illawarra, Shoalhaven and Southern Ranges have a fire danger rating of catastrophic.
Now there is a problem here. This is from the Sydney Morning Herald tonight.
It was just one of a number of fires across the state, as emergency services prepare for 'catastrophic' fire conditions on Tuesday.
Premier Barry O'Farrell on Monday made an emphatic appeal to all NSW residents to be fully prepared for the worst.
"Tomorrow is not just going to be in the 40s, it will perhaps be the worst fire danger the state has ever faced," he said. "Do what emergency services tell you, particular the rural fire service. Act early.
But is this potentially the most catastrophic, the worst fire danger, NSW has ever faced? Well it depends, for NSW is a big state. Almost certainly not, though. The risks are very real, people need to be warned to respond, they need to have their fire plans in place. But beyond that?
There is no doubt that tomorrow will be hot, if not as hot as expected even six hours ago. There is no doubt that fire conditions are bad because of the build-up of fuel. There is a chance that big fires may break out in the hot, gusty conditions. This post may seem silly, even insensitive, if a huge fire does break out. Even so.
This peaceful shot is taken at the foot of the Blue Mountains on New Year's Day at the Yarramundi Recreation Reserve. The time is about nine in the morning. The temperature is already around 33. By lunchtime, it was 37. We therefore set off for the Blue Mountains down the Bell's Line of Road in search of lower temperatures. In the lower Blue Mountains, the temperature was much the same.
Now this next shot shows the mountain country just off Bell's Line of Road.I have selected it because you can see the fuel, the grass and scrub, that has accumulated during the wet weather. Driven by wind, a hot fire would sweep through here very quickly, So the dangers we are talking about are very real. Indeed, I was very conscious of them, and actually kept an eye out for smoke.
To understand why, this next shot shows part of Bell's Line of Road. It's actually not a good shot for my purposes, but it is the only one I had. The point is that it's not a very wide road. Further comments follow the photo.
Bell's Line of Road is one of two roads across the Blue Mountains. It would clog very quickly. The main highway, the Great Western Highway is worse, for it runs through the populated areas on the mountains and gets clogged very quickly. In the event of a panic, people could easily be caught in fire.
Now in fairness to the authorities, only two areas of the state have the catastrophic tag attached to them as I write, (the Blue Mountains are extreme danger and that's fair enough), but you could be forgiven for not knowing this from the media coverage.
Today at work, a number of staff come from the Blue Mountains, everyone was talking about record temperatures and fire danger. One staff member had packed the key family documents in a box and brought them into the office. I thought, that's sensible. However, she also said that in terms of Australia's fight or flight policy, this time they were abandoning fight for flight. Then I thought of the road and thought bloody hell. If you are going to do that, then perhaps you should stay in a motel in Sydney tonight. Otherwise you may be at risk in the road and may, in any case, impede emergency vehicles.
As we came off the mountain, the temperature rose. It was after four when we reached the plains, with a temperature still at 41. That's just two degrees below the maximum projected for tomorrow. Yet there was no sense of fire emergency, of extreme risk.
What's been happening today in NSW is just not sensible. Advice to people to activate their bush fire plans is sensible. Information to people on a local basis as to how to respond is sensible. But we have had something close today to media and officially driven hysteria whose results could actually be worse in terms of lives lost. It confuses me, and I don't think that I am alone.