Archives For Bushfire Safety

Black Saturday fires (Image source: ABC)

With the NSW Rural Fire Service fighting more than 50 fires across the state and the unprecedented hellish conditions set to deteriorate even further with the arrival of strong winds the question of the day is, exactly how bad could this get? The answer is unfortunately, a whole lot worse. That’s because we have difficulty as human beings in thinking about and dealing with extreme events… To quote from a post I wrote in the aftermath of the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday fires.

So how unthinkable could it get? The likelihood of a fire versus it’s severity can be credibly modelled as a power law a particular type of heavy tailed distribution (Clauset et al. 2007). This means that extreme events in the tail of the distribution are far more likely than predicted by a gaussian (the classic bell curve) distribution. So while a mega fire ten times the size of the Black Saturday fires is far less likely it is not completely improbable as our intuitive availability heuristic would indicate. In fact it’s much worse than we might think, in heavy tail distributions you need to apply what’s called the mean excess heuristic which really translates to the next worst event is almost always going to be much worse…

So how did we get to this?  Well simply put the extreme weather we’ve been experiencing is a tangible, current day effect of climate change. Climate change is not something we can leave to our children to really worry about, it’s happening now. That half a degree rise in global temperature? Well it turns out it supercharges the heavy tail of bushfire severity. Putting it even more simply it look’s like we’ve been twisting the dragon’s tail and now it’s woken up…

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Why risk communication is tricky…

An interesting post by Ross Anderson on the problems of risk communication, in the wake of the savage storm that the UK has just experienced. Doubly interesting to compare the UK’s disaster communication during this storm to that of the NSW governments during our recent bushfires.

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Fire day

17/10/2013 — Leave a comment

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Woke to thick smoke in the city today, and things have not improved on what is turning into a bad fire day for us. Our airport at Newcastle is evacuated due to the Hank street fire that’s breached its containment lines and is now burning south east. There’s a fire at Killingworth to the west of the city and grass and scrub fires down the west side of the lake. More than eighty fires state wide, four with emergency warnings and three with watch and waits issued. And the wind is rising…

Disappointingly the Black Saturday royal commission report makes no mention of the effect of cognitive biases upon making a ‘stay or go’ decision, instead assuming that such decisions are made in a completely rationa fashion. As Black Saturday and other disasters show this is rarely the case.

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One of the positive outcomes from a disaster such as Black Saturday is that a window of opportunity opens in which opinions, behaviour and even public policy can be changed.

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So, a year on from the Black Saturday fires and the royal commission established in their aftermath is working it’s way to a conclusion. While the commission has certainly been busy, I guess you could say that I was left unsatisfied by the recommendations.

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Fire has been an integral part of the Australian ecosystem for tens of thousands of years. Both the landscape and it’s native inhabitants have adapted to this periodic cycle of fire and regeneration. These fires are not bolts from the blue, they occur regularly and predictably, yet modern Australians seem to have difficulty understanding that their land will burn, regularly, and sometimes catastrophically.

So why do we studiously avoid serious consideration of the hazards of living in a country that regularly produces firestorms? Why, in the time of fire, do we go through the same cycle of shock, recrimination, exhortations to do better, diminishing interest and finally forgetfulness?

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