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Australia's Bushfires - A Tragedy Of Government Ignorance

The scale of the Australian bushfires was overwhelming and tragic.

Such serious loss of life could have been prevented. The fire's fury could be foreseen, and observed in progress, but for a total lack of preparedness and organisation on the part of government.

We live in the 21st century where satellites orbit the earth constantly and fires are easily seen from space, and almost everyone has a mobile phone. There is no excuse for not being better prepared and communicating the danger better.

The Victorian government is empannelling a Royal Commission to investigate. It is hardly necessary. It's not like we haven't had fires before. It isn't rocket science and you don't need a Phd to understand that 40 degree plus Celcius temperatures, a strong wind off the hotter desert, and masses of tinder-dry fuel make for an inferno of superhuman proportions.

The insurance industry is gearing up for billions of dollars in claims. That isn't the issue. It is the loss of human life, pets and livestock and every sentimental knicknack and valuable that the victims who survived lost in the inferno.

To comprehend an Australian bushfire is impossible unless you have stared into the teeth of one and lived to see the other side. The contrast is beyond description. Silence, not a bird or animal call, then a ranging thunderous hurricane of fire which sounds like war. The wind is like a hurricane, only hot enough to incinerate anything made by man or god  that might lay in it's path and the hot embers fly like sparks from a grinding wheel. Massive trees explode like thunderclaps into a million hot embers, impossibly fast, instantly. Then absolute silence, apart from the very ground underneath crunching as you walk over the ashes that everything except the occasional sputtering tree has become. This is the reality of an Australian wildfire. Nothing made by man can hope to withstand the onslaught. If you are in the fire's random and unpredictable path then there is little hope, and only a miracle can save you.

If you need a comparison, the energy released is the equivalent of more than 50,000 Hiroshima bombs. You get the idea?

There is no 'stand and defend'. That is just a plain stupid idea. That doesn't stop it from being the government recommended plan. Lunacy. Never was it a good idea.

One thing the Australian government must do is change the way we prepare and respond to fires. We need to use the technology at our fingertips. We need to co-ordinate and communicate with every individual at risk. We need to observe. Not just on the ground, from space and in the air.

We need to not be saying 'Stand and defend or leave early'. We need to be realistic and force people to leave. The time for heroic bulldust is gone. As global warming get's a tighter grip on the Australian continent we need to let go of the stupid macho ideas of the past. Wake up.

It is impossible for a homeowner to make a rational decision to stay and fight or leave their home to the fires. They do not have the data. They have emotional ties. The decision should not be left to them.

It seems that it isn't possible for even the fire authorities, who do a heroic and commendable effort to save lives and property, to predict the worst. Why not? Because they are still living in the dark ages of technology, bouncing around like ants and dragonflies, short-sighted and almost blind. In a fire you can't sense direction, nor the intensity of the fire which genarates the smoke obscuring your vision. You need eyes in the sky.

That is not to say you can't predict the worst. All you have to do is live through one Australian bushfire to know what is possible. Anything.

Until the Australian government wakes up to the reality and uses the technology available in a co-ordinated effort to protect lives, not property, we'll see yet another repeat next year or in ten years time.

Strangely enough it looks like the Insurance industry will be the ones to make them see sense. Those companies which insure the property (and lives) at risk will be the ones to lead the way in telling people to abandon their property to the fires. The very companies with most at stake will be telling people to leave their homes to the fires, because governments are incapable of realising the truth.

The real tragedy is that so many lives have been lost making the point.

It is a point which is equally applicable to any country which is at risk of fires. It is just often worse in Australia because invariably it is the hot dry wind from the desert which is the primary culprit. And man.

Many fires are started by humans on purpose. Sick humans. It cannot be prevented. We must be prepared.

Given the current focus on terrorism and the astounding ability that governments have to throw endless money at terrorism related issues, perhaps we need to link wildfires or bushfires to terrorism. It's easy. Osama Bin Laden called on his followers to light forest fires and burn our cities. We know humans are responsible for many fires which contributed to the Australian death toll. We don't know who. The fires in Greece had a human hand behind them. How do we know it wasn't terrorists?

If that's what it takes to get governments to actually do anything to protect their citizens then let's assume it was terrorists.

ISLAMIC extremists are threatening an environmental disaster by sparking a series of catastrophic wild fires.

Various news reports over the last year or so reported:

- Western intelligence agencies fear that Al Qaeda terrorists are planning a “global fireball” in a new departure in its war on the West.
Deliberately lighting forest blazes in Europe, the US and Australia would not only stretch emergency services but leave insurance companies facing multi-billion pound damage bills as the credit crunch bites.
Australia’s Attorney-General Robert McClelland said that the country was “vigilant against such threats”. - or possibly -  "a most urgent need for renewed vigilance against a very real and present danger", depending on which source you use.

I fear that the Attorney General is a victim of his own spin. If the latest fires were not lit by terrorists and we see such a terrible result then god help us if terrorists ever do try that tactic. It'll be a lot worse than a few crazy firebugs and random lightning strikes.

Vigilance won't save anyone, preparedness and communication will. Wake up, face the reality.

 

PS. The Council Of Australian Governments are familiar with their own report

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Comments: (3)

John Dring
John Dring - Intel Network Services - Swindon 10 February, 2009, 11:14Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Its truly tragic.

The description is the best I've seen.  I always wondered what happened to the 'air' and oxygen in these events too.  I guess that is another killer, together with the heat, flame and smoke.

Is the Insurance industry going to provide the right advice?  I would hope so, but cannot bank on it.  A life might be insured for $500k, the loss of property and valuable might be considerably more.

The idea of location linked mass-notification via mobiles is not new.  The mobile operators and the governments could easily implement a mass-texting notification service, to all mobiles in a danger zone and those minutes would save lives.

Condolences to those tragically affected.

 

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 11 February, 2009, 09:05Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Thanks John,

It is really quite distressing. I spent a lot of time in the Kinglake-St Andrews area and know I'll never see some of those friends and familiar faces again.

I will certainly pressure the government to adopt a mass disaster warning system using mobiles. I know more than most, what is possible. Our own system can deliver thousands of alerts and evacuation warnings in a second or two, regardless of the network. It is also possible to priorise mobile traffic into and out of affected areas and importantly, make it very easy and quick for residents to signal fire authorities that fire is visible.

A completely automated system could both provide warning for residents and up to the second information for fire fighters. A simple co-ordinated approach would save much anguish and many lives. I believe a very effective system could be in place within months, even without the co-operation of the mobile carriers, although I believe they would be keen to help. An approach which is independent of the Telcos, cost them little and required none of their personnel on an ongoing basis would obviously meet least resistance.

I will offer our Mobile-based Automated Mass Alert system which includes automated alerts, confirmation of receipt of the alert, evacution intention and other response handling, and provision of further information. I'm sure it is a lot faster, more efficient, and more cost-effective than anything the Telco's can come up with. The systems I have seen others offer are unable to detect hoaxes for instance, which I would have thought was essential.

The Telco's won't get out of it for free though, they will have to ensure their mobile services have the coverage they allude to in their advertising, and perhaps improve coverage in the areas most at risk.

On the Bank front:

I note that Commbank has after a hiccup or two with fees, generously agreed to waive the mortgage exit fees for those who lost their homes in the fires. Many people will never return to rebuild, and it may be difficult to find a buyer for the charred remains so I don't expect the banks will recover much of their loans.

Insurance companies must be bracing for both high losses and perhaps at the same time an increase in homeowners seeking insurance or additional cover.

Fraudsters are already phishing for donations.

The losses so far:

Approximately 250 people, 1 million native animals, hundreds of pets and even more farm animals, 1033 homes, 450,000 hectares, many businesses, schools, community facilities, all gone up in smoke.

It isn't over. As I write, alerts go out to other towns coming under threat and the fire fronts are at risk of converging into something worse and warmer weather is only days away.

One of the key reasons that I am against the 'Stand and Defend' protocol is that firefighters have enough to contend with fighting the flames without having to deal with witnessing some of the scenes of death which they were presented with in these fires. Many are local volunteers. They would be better served and better serve us if they were able to concentrate on protecting property in the company of fellow trained firefighters and not have the constant potential human loss influence their own decisions to fight or flee. The emotional cost is more than firefighters should have to bear.

Homeowners could be encouraged to assist by becoming trained as volunteer firefighters and standardising to some degree the type of firefighting facilities homeowners install so that trained firefighters can use it to protect the home in the absence of the homeowner.

There are many improvements we could make and banks and insurance companies stand to benefit from improved practices. The smart ones will get involved as there are many potential benefits in doing so, especially at a time when the bank's images are perhaps at a low point. It is really quite simple to improve their image, simply by enabling their customers to become safer and fires are just one of the threats.

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 15 February, 2009, 05:32Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Perhaps 300 lives, 1834 homes.

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