Research helping to fight Australian fires

Greater academic rigour is being applied to minimise havoc caused by bushfires.

by

    Bushfires have forever been part of the Australian ecology – and psyche.

    But the academic rigour now being applied to studying them – and how humans react to them – is new.

    In 2009, massive fires in the state of Victoria killed 173: the worst natural disaster in Australian post-colonial history.

    There is a determination there will never be a tragedy like it again.

    But how to achieve it? Stewart Ellis of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre says a series of balancing acts is necessary.

    First, there’s management of the land. The more small fires are prevented, the more undergrowth can flourish – providing "fuel" for when a giant fire arrives. So, not every wildfire should be put out and controlled precautionary burning can also be a very good thing. 

    Then there’s the psychology of people at risk: how to prepare them, how to warn them and how much to scare them has been studied.

    If authorities cry wolf too many times, people won't react to a warning when it’s really needed. But effective messaging when danger really is imminent is essential and authorities can now automatically phone warnings to every mobile or landline in a set geographic area. 

    Equally, people need to be prepared. Big media campaigns encourage people to have "bushfire survival plans" worked out well in advance. People need to be worried enough to take that task seriously. When disaster hits, studies suggest prepared people are calmer people and make better decisions. Having worries in advance mitigates against panic at the last moment.

    Ellis says encouraging people to leave their homes early in the face of a fire, rather than suggesting they defend their homes, is crucial.

    “A greater emphasis on leaving is needed. If you’re not there [when the fire is] you will survive. If you stay, all bets are off,” Ellis said.

    But he says people often make irrational decisions.

    “The emotional pull of pets is huge and can [have] a direct influence on people’s safety. If we open a refuge but say ‘no animals’, that’s far less successful in getting them in."

    At the same time, the science of how bushfires work improves all the time: computer modelling takes into account topography and how different vegetation types will burn. 

    The latest fires in the state of South Australia didn’t kill anyone. That's a success those fighting Australia’s bushfires – literally or, through their academic work – want to replicate.


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