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A history of life and house loss in Australian bushfires.

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Monday 3 February 2003

Justin Leonard, Buildings in Bushfire Project, CSIRO, Melbourne


A history of life and house loss in Australian bushfires  


For the first 150 years of white settlement in Australia, the destruction of houses in bushfires was taken as inevitable. It appears few efforts were made to investigate or improve the performance of buildings in bushfire-prone areas. 


Perceptions of bushfires began to change after the “Black Friday” bushfires of 1939 which saw 71 lives lost and more than 1,300 buildings destroyed. 


The community’s view was sharpened by the Stretton Royal Commission into this event which highlighted the need for a co-ordinated approach to bushfire prevention and suppression. However World War II delayed the adoption of the Stretton recommendations. 


It wasn’t until the 1944 fires in Victoria, where 20 died and 927 houses were lost, that significant attention was again focused on the problem. The Country Fire Authority was formed soon after. 


The 1944 fires also saw the first scientific house-by-house study of bushfire building damage by George Barrow, a forestry scientist. Barrow’s findings contrasted sharply with the then-held community view that the destruction of timber-clad houses was virtually inevitable, with brick houses standing a better chance. His work also for the first time attacked existing myths about the destruction of houses in bushfires, for example that houses explode as the firefront hits. It gave guidelines for how we could reduce the main risk, which is ember attack - before, during and after the firefront - for example by covering ember entry points with metal flywire. 


His findings were published in a scientific journal -- and there they languished, unnoticed for the next forty years. The most important thing we can learn from Barrow’s landmark work is just how necessary it is to share our findings with the community. 


Another watershed in the formation of public opinion of bushfires was the Dandenong Ranges fire in Victoria 1962. This was the first Australian bushfire to be seen live on TV. With the loss of 14 lives and 454 houses the public’s response was overwhelming. The widespread offers of manpower, trucks and machinery resulted in the spectacle of a row of concrete trucks pouring water down the slopes of Mount Dandenong in the path of advancing flames. 


Generous community support for relief appeals followed for those who lost their houses, however there was no formal investigation of the performance of houses in this bushfire.  


Fast forward through history to the tragic fire in Hobart 1967. With temperatures exceeding 39°C and average winds of 60 km/h lasting several hours, many of the 81 uncontrolled fires that were burning that morning spread violently and combined. 


By the time weather conditions eased in the evening 62 people had died, and more than 1,300 homes and 128 other major buildings had been destroyed. Following this fire surveys were undertaken and a culture of understanding how and why houses and lives are lost began to develop.  


The “Ash Wednesday” bushfires in 1983 took 75 lives and destroyed over 1,500 houses, and still remains one of the most remembered disasters. It sparked the biggest-ever survey initiative by a number of research organisations. Detailed house-to-house surveys were performed including occupant interviews. 


The outcomes from this work formed the basis of our current understanding of house loss in bushfires. We have learnt that in the majority of cases, ignition is caused by wind-borne burning debris -- not to discount the part radiant heat and flame play in cases where houses directly abut dense undeveloped vegetation.  


This understanding of how bushfires attack homes has led to the understanding that we can improve the bushfire performance of houses by way of design details, rather than by building concrete bunkers.  


In early January 1994 a large number of bushfires occurred over a wide area of New South Wales, covering over 600,000 hectares and destroying 202 houses.  


Surveys of these fires confirmed many of the findings from the Ash Wednesday survey, providing important additional information for housing stock and vegetation types specific to Sydney. The ridge-top layout of several areas in Sydney provided clear evidence of the value of perimeter roads separating buildings from open bushland. 


And that brings us to the Canberra fires. Total losses in these fires are currently reported at four deaths and 530 houses lost in Canberra and the surrounding areas.  


This was an unusual disaster, with many houses lost well within urban areas of Canberra. These are areas which would not previously have been considered at risk of being lost in a bushfire, and this eventuality is not addressed by our current thinking, or our regulations.  


Our survey initiatives will seek to understand why this has occurred and, most importantly, will communicate the findings to the Government and the Community.  


Guests on this program:


Justin Leonard, Buildings in Bushfire Project, CSIRO Melbourne