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Australians debate response to bushfires

Video: Black Saturday was a tragic bushfire of a magnitude that Australia had never seen before


MELBOURNE, Australia — In Australia, Feb. 7, 2009, is now known as Black Saturday. The bushfires that ravaged the southern state of Victoria that day claimed 173 lives and devastated thousands more. As many as 400 separate fires raged over more than 815,000 acres, destroying not only homes but entire communities.

An apocalyptic scene of burnt-out forests, gutted houses and charred cars still greets visitors to the affected areas, which starts just north of the state capital Melbourne.

The combination of a prolonged heat wave and strong desert winds caused Black Saturday. The resulting infernos were the most deadly in the history of a country long accustomed to dealing with the annual terror of bushfires. They are an intrinsic part of the Australian environment, shaping the landscape, ecosystems and collective experiences of its people. But they had never faced a tragedy on this scale.

"In Australia we've always had bushfires — we've lived with those all our lives" said Daryl Hull, a former Marysville resident who survived the fires by immersing himself in the town's lake. "But not things of this nature, as horrific as this."

Yet perhaps the most terrifying thing for Australians to acknowledge is that this scene will likely be repeated again in the near future. Climate change observers predict natural disasters like Black Saturday, and the numerous battles Americans — particularly those on the West Coast — wage with the elements each year, will become more frequent and more ferocious. The responses of authorities around the world to such events are therefore increasingly scrutinized as countries confront this new reality.

In August, a "Royal Commission" — an independent body appointed by the state government to hear testimony on the fires and oversee investigations — released an interim report that made a number of recommendations. The report can be read here.

"The greatest desire is that in the loss we learn something so we can minimize the loss in future situations," said Glenda Hare, 54, operations manager for voluntary group Global Care, which is rebuilding in the Kinglake area.

Stay or go?

The Commission is focusing on Victoria's controversial "stay-or-go" policy, which critics claim cost lives in the tragedy.

The state's Emergency Services czar, Bruce Esplin, testified that prior to Black Saturday, officials believed they had one of the best bushfire strategies in the world. The policy, fully entitled "Prepare, stay and defend or leave early," is the only one of its kind used in the world that emphasizes preparing and remaining in homes over evacuation, according to Gary Morgan, Chief Executive Officer of Bushfire CRC, a wildfire research body. Spanning two decades, the policy gained strength in the aftermath of the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires across southern Australia — previously the country's most deadly in which 75 people died including 15 firefighters.

After 117 of the 173 people who perished on Black Saturday died at home, its reputation, along with a large chunk of Victorian bushland, has turned to dust.

Fire officials in drought-hit California announced in May that they had scrapped plans for their own "stay and defend" policy in favor of forced evacuation and vegetation clearing around homes. Bushfires in Santa Barbara that month tested these plans and the contrast with Black Saturday was stark. A large-scale evacuation resulted in no loss of life while just 100 properties were destroyed.

Contrary to reports, the commission confirmed that it has not sent officials to California to investigate its response system. However, the panel of three commissioners heard evidence on the mandatory evacuations procedure in California from U.S. wildfire safety expert Sarah McCaffrey, by video link on June 18. She indicated that the American approach also has flaws, in areas such as warning residents, and argued the U.S. has been lucky that more people have not been killed evacuating.

Systemic evacuation is not allowed under Victorian state law, and even sounding fire alarms to warn people to leave breaches regulations. Despite the Black Saturday death toll — more than three times the previous record from an Australian bushfire — residents do not necessarily back change.

"My life is mine and the danger and risks mine to contemplate and deal with," Daryl Hull said. "As it was I had the choice to leave the scene and I didn't."

Residents directly affected by the fires are more concerned with being able to protect their properties better than overturning the "stay-or-go" policy. Peter Newman, 55, and Louis Ackerman, 78, both live near Marysville — where just 33 of 700 houses survived. They appeared as one of the many lay witnesses at the commission hearings.

The couple had long complained about laws which prevented them cutting down trees more than 10 meters from their property. "The powers to be have to realize that houses have to be defensible," said Ackerman. "Trees don't come number one — people do."

Poor response times?

The authorities' response on the day has also come under fire as testimonies emerge about the lack of coordinated warnings. On June 29, the inquiry learned that 80 percent of 12,819 calls to the bushfire information line on Black Saturday were abandoned as the system collapsed.

Thousands of anxious residents resorted to calling ABC radio in Melbourne asking for updates. Strathewen, near Kinglake had the highest death toll of any single location on Black Saturday. It was not included in any warnings by the County Fire Authority (CFA) — the body responsible for fire response — in the hours before the flames arrived.

The head of the CFA admitted that warning systems had failed in places. "We deeply regret it," he told the commission.

Most people acknowledge that whatever lessons are learned, things will never be the same again in the fire-affected areas.

"The community will be different — they have a new normal. It's a bit like 9/11 when there was a new normal," said Global Care's Glenda Hare. "There'll be a strength, something that's inside of them, that maybe wasn't there before. But there's also now a vulnerability that wasn't there before."

Overcoming such fear will be one of the key challenges facing residents of Victoria and the rest of Australia as they face increasingly perilous bushfire seasons.