Monday, January 07, 2013

Hysteria over fire risk

Fire warning

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 notFamily playing Yarramundi, 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. Blue Mountain scenery, Bell's Line of Road

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. Fruit stall, Bell's Line of Road

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.    


Anonymous said...

You are 180% correct. The mood is becoming quite hysterical to the extent that potential risks are being conflated with actual events. Nevertheless, let's hope for the best!

Jim Belshaw said...

Let's hope for the best indeed. There is a real risk that some bloody idiot will light a fire.

Anonymous said...

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'.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, kvd. You paint a very interesting picture, one that fits with my own experience. It's a bit like a battlefield where initial responses have to be local. You can organise in advance, you need to be able to call for help, but the actual fighting is always local. A work colleague has been absolutely deluged with emails from the UK wanting to know if she was all right.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Thank you for accepting my comment - makes a pleasant change not to be 'binned' :) I've hesitated all day to follow up with more thoughts, but some things should be said.

1) I tried to be positive by ending with the super help, in difficult circumstances, from Telstra but left off the really useful local radio contribution from Your(local)ABC. Invaluable service, worth many times the 2c per day - in fact the only continuously updated accurate localised source of info I could find. (Next time I'll search for the blogs you mention).

2) AFAIAC the tv coverage was complete space-wasting crap. Sky News touts a red button with access to six screens of news info. You'd think at least one of them could have been devoted to simple, bare updates - without endless repetition - of 'really real' new updates. The rest of their coverage (and also the Weather channel's) was just filler stuff.

3) Like most residents I have completed the training course provided by the RFS. I'd recommend their no-nonsense, practical training for anyone residing more than 10k's from their favourite bottleshop or coffeehouse. There's something uniquely Australian and very reassuring to bump into the (one armed) local fire captain, to ask him how the last 'event' went - and to be simply told it was "pretty ordinary".

4) And I swear this is true: maybe five years ago my neighbour and I agreed that I should purchase for a nominal sum an area of about five acres of his land which was effectively cut off from his farm by the road between us. The only condition imposed upon this by local authorities was that I should fit ember-proof gauze to all windows of my house. Now you might think that reasonable - except I live in a 35 year old log cabin, and if you're not worried by the threat of wasp nests, you can put your fingers between the logs quite easily at numerous points, and my windows are fixed glass. I mention this as a simple example of regulation gone mad.

5) Personal annoyance: my Canberra-resident son and daughter rang me late Monday night, expressing concern and "have you thought about what you will do for tomorrow" stuff. My quite terse answer to both was "yes, beginning last November, every year for the last ten".

6) Most importantly, it isn't 'over' by any measure. This cool break is great, but it seems it is only temporary, unfortunately.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the additional comment, kvd. I will bring parts of it into my update post. What I liked about these comments is they way they directly reflected experience relevant to to the topic, and so aided my own thinking.