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Fire and flood

February 8th, 2009

The news from the fires in Victoria just keeps getting worse, with whole towns wiped out and more than 60 people confirmed dead. We can only hope the change in the weather will give firefighters a better chance. The loss of life in the Queensland floods has not been so severe, but there is still widespread devastation.

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  1. Alanna
    February 8th, 2009 at 19:06 | #1

    Id really like to know if people think these bushfires are the work of global warming or arsonists? It seems every news article you read blames arsonists.
    The death toll from the Victorian bushfires has surpassed the 47 from Ash Wednesday in 1983. Is this the worst ever?

  2. robert
    February 8th, 2009 at 19:46 | #2

    In terms of the death toll, yes, 2009 does appear to be the worst ever. Here’s an article about the January 1939 bushfire disaster, which seems to have afflicted a wider geographical area, but where the death toll was slightly less:


  3. February 8th, 2009 at 19:49 | #3

    Several news reports I’ve seen have said that on average, 50% of fires tend to be arsonists. But the fires are much more devastating with galeforce winds, bone dry air, and temperatures in the high 40s. So the scale of the devastation comes from the heat, in my book. And while hot temperatures have happened in the past (in 1939 71 people died in Victoria), high temperatures like this are much more likely to happen if the planet is warming.

  4. February 8th, 2009 at 19:53 | #4

    Alanna (@ #1)

    I have heard news items that seem to confirm that many fires were starting fires. Clearly the hotter climate makes the harm caused by arsonist r worse than it would otherwise be.

    It looks to me as if the floods in North Queensland are largely the consequence of over-clearing of bushland in the last one or two centuries. I have written something of it in a brief article “North Queensland flood devastation evidence of serious past damage to Australia’s environment”.

    Not much in it will surprise anyone who has already grasped the link between deforestation and devastating floods and mudslides.
    in countries like the Philipines and Thailand.

    The same principle would essentially apply here.

    This further confirms the point made in Mark O’Connor’s and William Lines’ book “Overloading Autralia” published last year:

    “We Australians are currently unable to sustain our present population without doing deplorable environmental damage”

    So, how do the likes of Rupert Murdoch imagine that further increasing Australia’s population will improve matters?

  5. February 8th, 2009 at 19:57 | #5

    That should have read “many arsonists were starting fires” (D’oh!)

    … and:

    “Clearly the hotter climate makes the harm caused by arsonists worse than it would otherwise be.”

  6. Hermit
    February 8th, 2009 at 20:47 | #6

    The more general question must be whether both the economic downturn and the weather events are a one-off or a fixture. One commentator said the weather conditions were a one in a hundred year event. Firebugs aside they were only marginally worse than in March 2008, just eleven months ago.

    Consider a worst-of-both-worlds scenario; the stimulus flops and weather woes return. Strangely that might be better than a halcyon period because we won’t become complacent.

  7. February 8th, 2009 at 20:49 | #7

    Many of the fires were deliberately started and the criminals who did this should be sought and punished. But obviously the urgent priority is to take care of the 700+ families who have lost their homes. Many have died but many too are frantic with worry about missing loved ones who cannot be contacted.

    The tinder dry conditions plus the hottest conditions in 155 years – coupled with high winds that dramatically changed direction played a part. The big heat builds on a year of low rainfall and a very dry January.

  8. James of FNQ
    February 8th, 2009 at 21:08 | #8

    I think you may be over simplifying the flooding in North and Far North Queensland. Ingham, the town that appears most often on the news is on a low flood plain surrounded by mountains and near the Herbert River delta. This river has its source on the western side of the Great Dividing Range near Ravenshoe, and this source location is significant because the area around the headwaters, has had heavy rain since early November from Cyclones, and the Monsoon that comes along this time of year.
    The Monsoon Trough has also contributed to the falls along the coast, as Monsoon troughs and rain depressions do, and all this water combined with king tides results in what is happening in Ingham.
    Deforestation on the floodplain for sugarcane farms happened a long time ago and as far back as I can remember, Ingham had floods. The great majority of the Herbert river is in untouched forest so your suggestion that deforestation caused the flooding is not the only cause.
    As far as the rainfall is concerned, I live in the hills behind Cairns, and we have had less rain this year than last year and the Barron, our nearest river is not in flood, and has not been this wet.
    I hope this helps you understand the Queensland tropics a bit.

  9. rog
    February 8th, 2009 at 21:47 | #9

    “One commentator said the …(insert factoid)”

    The extreme conditions did not start fires in places like Ivanhoe or Albury so you have to wonder as to the degree that man lights these fires – I have actually seen an arsonist lighting fires by the road whilst firies work on others. Perhaps time for the police to set up bushfire arson squads who target known and likely arsonists during hot and windy weather.

  10. pablo
    February 8th, 2009 at 22:17 | #10

    rog @ 9 suggests something that I can see becoming a reality – police profiling and surveillance of potential arsonists – beginning with psychological assessments of all of us to identify at risk behaviours. Given the heat wave in Victoria this past week it would be expected that extreme conditions would see the civil liberties of those rated as ‘at risk’ curtailed to some degree.
    Sounds tough I know but a fire/fires once lit in this week’s conditions give no one a second chance. One wonders if the perpetrator feels any remorse at the deaths incurred or is it all in the material destruction?

  11. February 8th, 2009 at 22:52 | #11

    Thanks for your interest and your response James of FNQ. I have cross-posted it as a comment to the article. I trust that that is OK with you. Feel welcome to post further comments there or here. You can do so anonymously, subject to moderation, or using an account.

    What I wrote was based on my gut feeling which was confirmed by Hugh Spencer who also lives in Far North Queensland. Hugh describes himself as a ‘hands-on conservation biologist’. I am sure he will be most interested in your comments and will respond before long.

    I didn’t actually say that deforestation caused the floods, rather I said that it made their impacts more severe than they otherwise would have been.

    Whether the clearing of land happened recently or over 100 years ago it looks to me, on the evidence, like environmental damage, if, as a consequence, floods cause as much damage as they do.

    What got me thinking was the brown colour of the flood water and remembering David Montgomery’s excellent “Dirt – the erosion of Civilisations” which pointed out that any agricultural system which allows soil to be washed away faster than it can be created (in the order of one or two inches ever century – I don’t have the exact figure on me) is unsustainable.

    All past civilisations which allowed their soil to be washed away at a rate faster than what could be replaced has collapsed.

    The presence of so much dirt in flood waters (and for that matter, in the Barron river, constantly as Hugh had advised me) is a sign that the natural systems which hold soil in place have been damaged and that Australia is headed in the same direction.

  12. TN
    February 9th, 2009 at 00:51 | #12

    I think that both the fires and the floods were caused by neoliberalism.

  13. El mono
    February 9th, 2009 at 01:17 | #13

    On average everything is fine…..

  14. Ikonoclast
    February 9th, 2009 at 07:21 | #14

    The Victorian fires seem to be of such an intensity that much standard bushfire advice leaves people in danger of being overwhelmed and killed. It’s difficult to know, however, what better advice could be offered. These are bushfires that turn into massive firestorms.

    One piece of advice is “to stay and defend or evacuate early.” Certainly, evacuating late is a very dangerous practice. However, the phrase “evacuate early” begs several questions. In conditions of fire storm, confused fire fronts, high winds and fires “spotting” many kilometres ahead, the conditions are changing so rapidly a person on the ground has no way of safely judging what “early” is.

    I have heard anecdotal evidence that panic driving in these conditions tends to resolve into two groups; those who drive too fast and those who drive too slow. In low visibility conditions collisions are inevitable.

    If a “moderate” bushfire passes over a house or car then staying inside the car or house is safest. If a firestorm passes over, the heat is so intense cars and houses can burst into flame almost instantly.

    In firestorm situations staying put may be marginally safer. Houses tend not to be safe rufuges in this case however, so the only alternatives are pools, creek beds and even wombat holes (under wetted sheets abnd blankets) according to one news report.

    A serious question is this. Do all houses in the Australian bush and bush towns need compact bushfire bunkers? These ought to be located under open ground near the house not under the house itself. Ought not these bushfire bunkers be required by law for all new dwellings in designated shires? Ought not existing residences be subsidised to put them if the owner elects to do so?

  15. observa
    February 9th, 2009 at 07:48 | #15

    ‘I think that both the fires and the floods were caused by neoliberalism.’
    And I thought saying sorry and signing Kyoto would fix all that.

    In the aftermath of the fires we might have to face up to the tendency for more people to want to live around natural bush and what that means for their safety. There are certain provisions in the Building Code for building in bushfire prone areas but it’s clear that some owners in high risk areas are going to have think about significantly upgrading their home or providing some safe retreat of last resort. The apparent deaths of many trying to flee the fires points to that. Clearly they had little faith in staying with their home for protection. I must admit I wouldn’t live in some of the death traps I see in the Adelaide Hills, let alone among some of that tall timber in the Eastern States. If I were so inclined, I’d build an underground shelter with bottled air, assuming I hadn’t purpose built the home from scratch. That’s probably the real lesson for rural retreaters here.

  16. James of FNQ
    February 9th, 2009 at 08:58 | #16

    Man has modified his environment to suit only man for eons and so many inputs have influence on the results. While many of these actions influence flooding the degree of influence is quite variable and not consistent. Ingham would not exist had the flooplain not been cleared for agriculture. While this would remove the flooding problem I doubt the citizens of Ingham would support the proposal to leave tree cover of the area.

    The flooded areas of the Gulf are totally a result of rainfall over a large area as the rivers that empty into the Gulf are sourced in an arc from Mount Isa to The Wet Tropics. There is minimal tree clearing in this area and much is Savannah woodland and grassland.
    Sediments in this region, most of it natural, is building land and the floods in the gulf region seasonally inundate the land for many kilometres inland.

    The flooding of the wet tropics is quite different. The flooding at ingham I have already discussed but that South of Tully is interesting.

    In earlier times the mindset of the people of the north was to accept the isolation of the wet season and adjust life to the seasonal shortages. Having spent most of my life in remote areas I have sufficient resources for at least one month so the, cyclones, floods and road closures have little affect on my lifestyle. This is not the case for the new settlers to the north and the demand for continual access is expected. Another aspect is the economy and business models we follow take little account of the possibilities of the northern wet season.

    One of the suggested solutions was to rebuild the road between Townsville and Cairns. One site is south of Tully and this section crosses a swamp for some distance. It was low and went under water often so the new road is much higher. Unfortunately we now have a barrage with what appears to be insufficient culverts so the new road was covered by 60 cm of water last week. It also appears to have increased the area covered by flood waters. This illustrates the difficulties encountered trying to engineer infrastructure to meet modern demands. When rainfall is high, two to three hundred millimetres a day is common, many difficulties are encountered.

    The agriculture of the Atherton Tablelands is of concern and probably is responsible for most of the sediments in the rivers of the area not coastal agriculture. Coastal agriculture is often blamed but I suspect land development in towns and cities are responsible for a good amount of these sediments as I have yet to see clear water coming from a housing estate.

  17. Alanna
    February 9th, 2009 at 09:01 | #17

    What interests me in todays paper is that one family built a bushfire bunker and the family survived because of it. It had concrete floor and walls and some sort of fireproof door built into an embankment. It seems like a good idea. They have tornado shelters in the US.

  18. Steve
    February 9th, 2009 at 09:25 | #18

    The kind of conditions in which bushfires thrive can happen even without global warming.



    This report talks about changes to ‘fire weather’ by 2020 and 2050. Not sure what it would mean for 2009.

    Here is the first few lines from the technical summary:
    “Since 1950, rainfall has decreased in south-east Australia, droughts have become more severe and
    the number of extremely hot days has risen. The effect of these changes on fire frequency and
    intensity is not evident, although it is clear that hotter and drier years have greater fire risk.”

    Successfully determining the impact of climate change on bushfire risk means being able to make good *regional* predictions of rainfall, relative humidity, wind speed and lightning strikes, not just temperature. I understand modelling the impact of climate change on all of these is a pretty tricky task.

  19. observa
    February 9th, 2009 at 09:25 | #19

    I see we’re on the same wavelength Ikon, except for that public subsidy bit again. Why should new home builders/buyers wear the cost of current BCA bushfire regs and existing homeowners get a public subsidy? That applies to any updated safety measures like swimming pool fencing, electrical RCDs, hard wired smoke detectors, not to mention 20000L of water storage and stand alone firefighting pump these days. Streuth you leftys have some funny value systems and lopsided cost imposition rules.

    If anyone is a rural retreater/outer suburb dweller and is a bit nervous about their vulnerability to bushfire I’d offer some general advice(CAVEAT- get some specific professional advice)It is probably impossible to protect your home from eventually burning down in these firestorm situations but short of a bunker with air supply, the home should offer reasonable protection until the firestorm has passed and it’s safe to evacuate.

    Brick, Autoclaved Aerated Concrete(Hebel),stone, rammed earth and the like offer sufficient protection, but the danger is from the roof, windows and to a lesser extent doors. External doors should be solid (not hollow core construction)and windows would need to be capable of shuttering with heavy drapes. Tiled rooves would need to be heavily sarked with fireproof sarking and the ceiling insulated to current BCA regs to offer temporary refuge underneath. Similarly with an iron roof although it would be advisable to have foil blanket under the iron and ceiling insulation. Certainly the flutes at the gutter should have insulation preventing the egress of embers, which the blanket solution provides. There is to be a subsidy for retrofitting roof insulation including sarking(to cheers from Ikon) Personally if I were building new I’d line the roof with a 90/90/90 Firecheck(fireproof plasterboard)solution under an iron roof with fireproof doors and window shuttering, rather than any bunker solution. If you’re not short of a quid you could retrofit a Firecheck solution, etc here, but the building blanket would be a cost effective minimum and attention to window protection a must.

  20. David Allen
    February 9th, 2009 at 10:18 | #20

    Existing fire plans seem to be defective. They seem to work well for protecting homes from low intensity fires. However the sort of fires that kill can be likened to having the exhaust of a jet engine pointed at your house. Unless the window glass is covered you don’t stand a chance. Stories from the Canberra fires indicated that home occupants ready to defand their homes had to flee when windows exploded and super hot gases entered and ignited the interiors. Window foil covers or shutters would go a long way to improving the survivability of homes.

    Fire bunkers are mentioned above. I wouldn’t live in a forested area without one. They are simple, inexpensive and can be installed with the aid of a backhoe. Precast concrete pipe sections can be used. An airtight bunker stocked with water and blankets would have been a more effective strategy than leaving by car.

  21. David Allen
    February 9th, 2009 at 10:23 | #21

    I might add that my extended family have been fortunate thus far. My mother-in-law in Horsham had the fire within a 100 metres. My sister near east of Broadford still has fire very close. (She has a bunker). My farm near Glenhope is near the current containments lines of the Redesdale fire. Crossed fingers.

  22. Bruce Littleboy
    February 9th, 2009 at 11:14 | #22

    How many carbon offsets have just gone up in smoke? Is it really a good idea to “capture” carbon in the form of a potential firebomb?

    What programs exist to rehabilitate, constrain and punish arsonists? Arsonists are at least as dangerous as paedophiles. Is there a criminologist in the house?

    What did the politicians do last time (Ash Wednesday)to arrest (literally) arsonists? I recollect a newspaper report (about a year ago) where an arsonist was granted something like a three month good behaviour bond. Also I distantly recall a 4 Corners program pointing out that arsonists are over-represented in the (brace yourselves) local fire-fighting community. (Hardly surprising: similarly child molesters try to find careers with access to children.)

    What are the technical possibilities of monitoring fires and those who set them via satellite? It may be costly, but this would be insignificant in terms of the loss of life and property just experienced.

  23. Steve
    February 9th, 2009 at 11:25 | #23

    “How many carbon offsets have just gone up in smoke? Is it really a good idea to “capture” carbon in the form of a potential firebomb?”

    I think the regrowth after a bushfire is pretty tremendous – at least for native trees. so the carbon offset is still there.

  24. February 9th, 2009 at 11:40 | #24

    Also, fire causes a net removal of carbon from the system, in the form of charcoal.

  25. Marginal Notes
    February 9th, 2009 at 11:51 | #25

    Daggett @ #4, I agree with James of FNC that you have oversimplified the flooding issue. Ingham sits on a floodplain after all and flooding has been a community concern since the 1880s. No doubt there has been excessive clearing of land for sugarcane and problems with uncoordinated flood diversion and drainage in the lower Herbert, but with rainfall events such as recently experienced extensive flooding was probably inevitable. The bigger environmental issue in North Queensland is the impact of sediment, mainly from grazing lands, on the Reef. Hence a given level of flooding now has much greater impact in terms of sediment and nutrients deposited in the GBR lagoon.

  26. February 9th, 2009 at 12:18 | #26

    Forgive my impertinence but may I suggest another blegathon on behalf of the victims of this disaster? Talk is cheap and economists should only take seriously the pecuniary revelation of preferences.

    Pr Q seems to have set the gold standard for these appeals in the Ozblogosphere. So I am sure he would be proud to be nominated as the bushfire disaster Bloginator, at least as a focal point for ostentatious donations.

    I have already put in my mite to the Red Cross Bushfire appeal web site. I’d be ready to double up if others came to the party.

  27. February 9th, 2009 at 12:36 | #27

    To put the carnage in perspective.

    The prediction is for the bushfire death toll to rach 200, what with those missing presumed dead and those not expected to survive their injuries. That is a mortality rate of 1 per 100,000 for the AUS population as a whole.

    The USA suffered 3,000 fatalities in the WTC attack. Which is a mortality rate of about 1 per 100,000 for their whole population.

    Except that this disaster is much more widespread in terms of property damage and social upheaval.

    So really we are looking at the blackest day in the peacetime history of AUS.

  28. Socrates
    February 9th, 2009 at 13:12 | #28

    Putting to one side debates about arsonists and climate change, the fires to me suggest that we need to rethink regulations on the location and building standards for houses in forest areas. A lot of remote country homes are very difficult to defend from fire; these are usually not farmers but “treechangers” looking for lifestyle. Should we always permit this? Just as we are now starting to see governments limit coastal development on erosian prone coastlines, do we need to stop some development in fire risk areas?

    I think there is also an issue with the type of houses built. I was in Canberra at the time of the 2003 fires and remember the discussion then. The CSIRO had done studies on how to make homes more bush-fire proof since the 1960s. But no binding national standards were passed then or since. Most country councils try to keep building costs down but in this instance, it is a false economy. We need a national approach.

  29. Chris Borthwick
    February 9th, 2009 at 13:13 | #29

    The question I’d like to see addressed is what the events of this week would mean if these temperatures became the norm – two weeks a year, say, with temperatures over 40c and no rain that month, every year. What forms of agriculture, what forms of settlement, become impossible?
    At the moment we seem to be planning to say “‘Tis only a flesh wound” and carry on as before.

  30. Socrates
    February 9th, 2009 at 13:26 | #30


    I don’t know all the answers to that question but the CSIRO has already examined some industries. The wine industry faces a dramatic drop in income from forecast climate change. Most people don’t realise what a 2 to 4 degree rise in average temerature means. 4 degrees is the difference in average temperature between Hobart and Melbourne.

  31. spangled drongo
    February 9th, 2009 at 13:32 | #31

    On average,El mono 13, this is Australia, as Dorothea rightly said.
    Don’t read too much into it other than increased population and short memory.
    We don’t seem to be learning our lessons and why is that?

  32. Hermit
    February 9th, 2009 at 14:01 | #32

    I have a potato cellar dug 3m deep into a clay embankment which could act as bunker. I also have a petrol fire pump which can be coupled in seconds via a 25mm polypipe and gate valve to a large rainwater tank. However I wonder if the sky blackened and my skin began to peel with radiant heat I would still try to do a runner in the car.

    What may be needed is a multipronged appoach. Jail some firebugs. Train people in firefighting. Devise a simple cheap bunker design. Instead of speeches perhaps politicians could ensure the problem is not too much worse for future generations.

  33. rog
    February 9th, 2009 at 14:08 | #33

    After the fires in 1994 I found that most houses were burnt by spot fires – you have to keep an eye out for embers. Important to saturate surrounding grass, garden and have a dam or bore, a decent generator for when you lose power, plenty of fuel, a large plastic tank (I use a 1200 litre on the back of the 4WD) and 2 petrol driven fire pumps to fill the tank and then spray small fires.

    In 1994 we had enormous resources at our disposal but when the fire front eventually hit they all left, “you are on your own now” they said.

    We were evacuated 3 times but returned and then protected our property, fire burnt up to the edges which we doused at night. One day of high heat and wind we watched the fire jump the Hawkesbury and tear up the hill to burn out houses at Wahroonga.

    Never build at the top of a hill

  34. Michael of Summer Hill
    February 9th, 2009 at 16:57 | #34

    John, our hearts go out to all the families who have suffered as a result of the the tragedy in Victoria. But what seems abnormal temperatures may in fact be normal for during the summer months from December to March occasional spells of hot weather – over 35°C – may occur when north to northweserly winds bring hot air from the interior of the country.

  35. Ikonoclast
    February 9th, 2009 at 17:44 | #35

    Socrates at #26 mentions building codes and building zoning related to fire prone areas. This hits the nail on the head and relates to both fire and flood natural disaster areas.

    We need to radically change what we are doing in relation to building in natural disaster prone areas. Many existing country and coastal towns in Qld. are in “legacy” flood plain locations having being settled a century or more ago.

    However, with all contemporary developments there is no reason, to my knowledge, why all released land cannot be above something like a 1 in 200 year flood level.

    And clearly, improved national standards building and zoning standards are needed to manage bush fire risk better.

  36. Alanna
    February 9th, 2009 at 18:01 | #36

    Im keeping my fingers crossed for David Allen. Cant imagine anything worse.

  37. February 9th, 2009 at 18:07 | #37

    Ikonoclast wrote “Do all houses in the Australian bush and bush towns need compact bushfire bunkers? These ought to be located under open ground near the house not under the house itself.”

    Yes and no. The best thing I can think of is a pair of bunkers like that on either side of the house – two for redundancy and to have one away from the fire – with an access trench lined with sandbags running under the house and past and beyond each bunker, zigzagging and covered with easily shifted corrugated iron to avoid a line of sight for radiant heat. There should be provision to collapse the part under the house, or it will help feed air into fire there.

    David Allen wrote “An airtight bunker stocked with water and blankets would have been a more effective strategy than leaving by car”.

    Again, yes and no. Airtight will also kill you. The best bet I can think of is to lay perforated hoses from it a few feet under ground, and pump cooler air out of those into the bunker when it is in use.

    Hermit wrote “Devise a simple cheap bunker design”.

    I’d suggest as above, based on an old upturned boat hull placed in a shallow pit and covered over, with access by ducking under the edge through a U bend from the access trench and with sandbags ready to roll in and plug the entry – and entrenching tools to dig your way out later if you have to.

  38. Alanna
    February 9th, 2009 at 18:20 | #38

    I was wondering about the airtight. How do you breathe in the bunker or should it be airtight just long enough to enable the main front to pass over ie you know how much time you have in the bunker before you need to get out?

  39. Socrates
    February 9th, 2009 at 18:46 | #39

    I wouldn’t pretend to be expert on house building standards but I think Rog highlights the key point. The previous CSIRO research I read found embers were teh key danger to houses dating back to fires in the 50s. It advocated (slight) modifications to design, and restrictions on protrusions etc to prevent them trapping embers. A house is quite sturdy against radiant heat provided you stop the embers.

  40. Smiley
    February 9th, 2009 at 22:14 | #40

    …which pointed out that any agricultural system which allows soil to be washed away faster than it can be created (in the order of one or two inches ever century – I don’t have the exact figure on me) is unsustainable.

    I know this is a bit off-topic, but the solution to agricultural run-off is agrichar (for multiple reasons). Here is the BBC Horizons program that was shown on ABC TV back on 04 and that originally got me interested in the subject. Even if you already know about agrichar it’s still a good story and well worth watching.

    Because the coalition have shown some serious interest in this method for drawing down carbon and storing it in a stable form in the soil (another great advantage), I think I’m going to give them a higher preference than Labor at the next federal election… no matter how the Greens suggest that I preference.

  41. February 9th, 2009 at 22:37 | #41

    One way that liberals think they can square the circle of climate change with massive population inflows is by allowing excess metro populations spread out beyond the urban fringe and into regional and rural settings. Mostly tree-changers sprawling into theprovincial foothills and sea-changers spreading out along the coastal strips.

    As the increasingly dense cities become more and more unbearable places to raise traditional families the flow of population into these more liveable zones has accelerated. This at least takes some of the pressure off the groaning urban infrastructure, reduces the congestion in public space and other assorted madness of crowds.

    Of course its nice to live more in touch with nature. That is until nature bites back against culture and the drought turns your back-yard turns into a fuel-air explosive or the rising sea-level turns your house into a coastal reef.

    I realise that mentioning bleak Malthusian realities such as the land’s safe carrying capacities is considered an unpardonable insult to humanities self-image as having unrivaled dominion over nature. Or, worse still, a sign that the speaker harbours some kind of despicable animus against foreigners. A recipe for social ostracism.

    Oh well, I guess we will just have to find some where else to put the massive inflows and throughflows of population, where they are not vulnerable to apocalyptic devastation by Biblical-scale floods, fires or pestilence. Any suggestions?

  42. observa
    February 9th, 2009 at 23:15 | #42

    It’s quite right that embers are often the cause of homes burning down which is why iron rooves are sealed at the gutter line as well as brick vents and drainage perp joints having to be mesh protected in bushfire areas. Tiled rooves are obviously sarked too and then there are requirements for minm. fireproof water storage, piping and petrol firefighting pumps. Clearly poly tanks and exposed poly piping are not allowed. As well my general comments above about fireproofing dwellings were relevant to slab on ground and elevated/transportable homes have to have special attention paid to fire egress via the floor area. Nevertheless it’s quite feasible to build homes that offer the occupants a safe haven for the fire’s passing at least and that’s what the BCA attempts to do as a minimum. However this experience may well see more onerous bushfire provisions a la the revamp of the Cyclonic building code due to Tracy. That’s exactly how our BCA has developed over time and why building is quite a costly science these days.

    As to bunker type retreats for older housing, for which it may be uneconomic to upgrade to safe haven status, we need to be aware that whacking a pipe or some such underground is somewhat naive. It would need to be large enough for families to comfortably want to sleep in, in the event a bushfire warning alert goes out. Not much good having that pipe in the ground if the family are all asleep in the house when the fire roars through unexpectedly. In that sense it’s always best to make the house a safe refuge and that responsibilty falls heavily on the homeowner, rather than relying on firefighters and rescue teams. Indeed insurers via future premia, will no doubt be providing some very large economic impetus for those not shocked into such action by this huge wake up call. Get up to pace or face exorbitant premia or outright insurance refusal.

    In that sense there is no way we should entertain any bailout of uninsured homeowners. The Govt’s role is immediate safety and disaster amelioration and then repairing communal infrastructure and nothing else. Bailing out the uninsured would simply encourage more to to take short cuts with their own safety, as many are already doing at present. If you can’t afford insurance in flood and bushfire prone areas, essentially you can’t afford to live there. That’s often what the insurance premiums are telling them but they don’t want to listen.

  43. Greg Wood
    February 10th, 2009 at 00:07 | #43

    The planners, politicians, property speculators and mass media lifestyle dream factories are responsible for the bulk of these deaths.

    This was not so much a natural disaster as it was a catastrophe of planning and development that lacks productive and moral integrity.

    We ignore this causative reality at our continuing peril. How many dead next time when the rural residential sprawl has extended even further into remnant bushlands?

  44. February 10th, 2009 at 00:32 | #44

    I used to love driving through the Black Spur, passing through dear little Marysville, a picture-perfect High Country town. Say goodbye to all that.

    What happened to regional Victoria is a portent, one already being felt in California which has experienced much stronger versions of similar ecological and sociological trends. California is kind of useful that way, the world’s most eager guinea pig, always willing to scamper towards the next social experiment to make the world over. (And then parlay it into a fortune by getting celebrities to act it out on the silver screen.)

    Steve Sailer comments on the way that urban exodus is putting more pressure on stressed environments and more people in harms way. This was brought home in a vengeance with the great Californian bush fires of 2003:

    California is a particularly fragile place for 35 million people to live in. And the cost of cramming more people into the state keeps rising.

    Brushfires and mudslides used to seem more amusing because they afflicted Hollywood celebrities significantly more often than average citizens. This was not just a matter of God’s good taste.

    Average citizens lived in the cheaper and safer flatlands. The rich poised precariously in the hills, where construction and maintenance costs are higher—especially if you want your home to survive what Mother Nature keeps up her sleeve.

    But the plains of Southern California filled up long ago. So the ever-growing population has been spilling into the more treacherous wild areas. This is regularly denounced as “sprawl,” which implies that individuals are wastefully consuming more and more land per capita.

    But in California the driver has been population growth. According to a 2003 Center for Immigration Studies report by Roy Beck, Leon Kolankiewicz, and Steven A. Camarota, from 1982 to 1997 the total number of developed acres in California grew by 32 percent, but the per capita usage was up only two percent.

    Essentially all of California’s population growth in the 1990s was due to new immigrants or births to foreign-born women. (Indeed, close to 1.5 million more American-born citizens moved out of California during the 1990s than moved in from other states.)

    As low-income immigrants pour into Southern California’s lowlands, crowding the freeways and overstressing the older cities’ public schools, the middle class (at least the ones who don’t leave the state) have responded by taking to the hills.

    California desperately needs a slower population growth rate until it learns how its current vast population can live with its lovely but sometime lethal landscape. And the state’s burgeoning numbers are solely driven by immigration.

    The logical solution: cut back on immigration.

    Reality is literally lighting a fire under us.

    Sound familiar? Consider our dwindling stocks of water storage, top soil coverage, exhaustible energy, un-carbonised air. And our rising stock of carbonisable bush. Then add a massive influx of people to that mix.

    The scale of typical natural disasters is tending to get worse over time because of population growth. Directly because nature is getting narkier due to greater demographic stress on the environment. But also indirectly because culture is getting riskier, living in more and more stressed-out regions.

    Obviously the thing to do is to increase the population by 50% over the next generation or so. That will turn an already unmanageable problem into an unmitigated disaster.

  45. Donald Oats
    February 10th, 2009 at 00:45 | #45

    Several factors make this last week exceptional, as in unique across the instrumental record for the SE part of Oz.

    Firstly, the number of above 40C days in a row was a record for much of Victoria. Indeed, the number of 43C and above days was amazing in itself. Melbourne and many other areas had their highest recorded maximum temperatures, *and* highest recorded minimum temperatures – not only was it stinking hot, it didn’t cool down overnight by much, and that makes the fire conditions more dangerours.

    Secondly, this is a la Nina period and yet we are getting the highest recorded temperatures that SE Australia has experienced. While la Nina can give drought conditions, it is less likely to give extreme heat than el Nino.

    Thirdly, as the AGW sceptics keep reminding everybody, we are at a solar minimum and so slightly less solar output is occurring. That too should mean that all other things being equal, the temperatures during summer aren’t more likely to be extremely high. [Bit convoluted, but I'm trying to say that given less solar output, we would expect the summer temperatures to be similar or slightly lower than previous years, but not heaps hotter.]

    Now I know all that waa re local versus global etc, but we do have solid research on what to expect climate-wise and seasonal weather-wise for specific regions of Oz – CSIRO and the unis expend much effort on this. BOM has some data on this too, of course. It is time to get past the sideshows of whether this or that event is “caused” by global warming. Global warming is an input into the environmental conditions, and for SE Oz it inevitably leads to nastier fire seasons.

    Condolences to those who have been tragically affected by the events of this fire season.


  46. Paul G. Brown
    February 10th, 2009 at 05:03 | #46

    The problem with Climate Change is that its effects are only apparent in hindsight. That’s one lesson I took from Jared Diamond’s _Collapse_.

    We will see climate change in the rear view mirror, such as;

    a) The south/eastern portions of the country are slowly depopulated due to decreased rainfall and accompanying environmental changes (more fires, fewer and smaller trees, etc).

    b) Changes in farming practices and land use – shifting to more production in Australia’s north west.

    The whole point about climate change is that it’s gradual, on the scale of human lifetimes. What you will see are a myriad of small changes, which add up.

  47. John Armour
    February 10th, 2009 at 07:31 | #47

    Donald Oats at #44

    I think the skeptics are saying solar influences are actually at a peak (as they try to explain current warming).

    They’re wrong of course. Insolation has pretty much flatlined for the last 30 years from what I’ve read.

    Your point about La Nina is worrying however.

    This is the sort of stuff we normally expect in the El Nina.

  48. jquiggin
    February 10th, 2009 at 09:37 | #48

    Jack @ #26. Good suggestion, and the appeal is now under way

  49. February 10th, 2009 at 10:36 | #49

    Observa wrote “Not much good having that pipe in the ground if the family are all asleep in the house when the fire roars through unexpectedly”.

    That’s why I suggested an access trench and arranging to have at least one bunker away from the approach of the fire. I can see problems burglar proofing it though.

  50. observa
    February 10th, 2009 at 13:23 | #50

    I take your point PML, but basically if homeowners in fire and flood prone areas can’t afford home and contents insurance in future, then private insurers are responsibly telling them they can’t afford to live there, unless they can upgrade their homes to insurable and hence reasonably safe standards. They need to move and sell up to those who can afford to do so. Insurance companies will simply be the message bearers of sensible risk in future. No doubt they’ll be happy to insure bunkers, but that’s not what’s required.

  51. observa
    February 10th, 2009 at 13:39 | #51

    On that point I’ll make a fairly confident prediction that when all the investigations and recriminations are done and dusted, we’ll find barely anyone died inside a home built to modern bushfire codes (adopted around 2000 I think)

  52. February 10th, 2009 at 23:06 | #52

    I meant, if there is an unobstructed access trench running from the house, there is an unobstructed access trench running to the house – and that access to the house needs burglar proofing, not the access to the bunkers. At the cost of a small obstruction, the simplest arrangement I can think of is a double upward opening trapdoor with the upper door hinged on the opposite side to the lower so that upward pressure lacks the leverage to lift it (all with the usual bolts locking to the frame so that the hinges can’t be forced).

  53. Peter Evans
    February 11th, 2009 at 10:39 | #53

    Jack @27 – depends how you measure it. There have been worse maritime disasters in Australian waters (the Cataraqui founding on King Island in 1845 killed 400 odd).

    Don’t mean to be a pedant, but people always go for the “worst ever” whenever something really bad happens.

    Anyway, the Victorian fires are bloody awful.

  54. Alanna
    February 11th, 2009 at 10:57 | #54

    Why does a bunker need to be near the house? In US movies tornado bunkers are often in a shed floor and further one family who survived said they built their bunker into the side of a natural embankment. This would seem to make sense. If there is a slight hill anywhere perhaps there would be a way to keep earth on top and have the doors sloping at the side so that the fire passes over the top? Like war movies where you see hidey holes for shooting at ships or subs. Im sure there is a way to design ver effective bunkers that could enable people to stay and defend as long as possible and then seek refuge. The bathroom isnt good enough and teh choice between the bathroom and the car has proved disastrous to the stay and defend polcy. One fellow seemed to survive by retreating into a concrete bunker standing vertically also. I do know when bushfires have ringed Kuringgai Campus at lindfield (when the homes in a neighbouring street were razed) – the campus stayed intact and the fire burnt around it because it was built from preformed concrete slabs (brutalist style).

    There has to be an effective bunker system that is relatively inexpensive to install or construct. Also trees should be cleared from around properties and restored fire trail maintenance and backburning systems implemented. Its not as if experts have not been saying these things – the choppers are good but they are not enough on their own.

  55. February 11th, 2009 at 11:48 | #55

    Alanna, a bunker does not need to be near the house as such, but it does need to be safely accessible from there as people might well have to start from there – and proximity is a factor in that.

  56. February 11th, 2009 at 11:52 | #56

    Peter Evans, if you want pedantry you should know that the Cataraqui didn’t “found” (I think you meant founder), it was wrecked. When a ship hits something hard, that’s a wreck. When it breaks up in open water, that’s foundering. It’s actually not a quibble, because the chances of surviving a wreck are far higher.

  57. Peter Evans
    February 11th, 2009 at 13:38 | #57

    PML, one learns something every day!

  58. February 11th, 2009 at 14:19 | #58

    One thing is for sure, high rates of rural and regional sprawl, to the swathe of land ringing the urban fringe, will continue to put more and more people into harms way. And the harm will only get worse as global warming dries the land out.

    Over the past decade there has been a massive displacement of people from the urban centre to the regional periphery, usually within one to two hours commute of the CBD. This is sometimes called tree-change but the driving forces are quite different to the sea-change phenomenon.

    Many of the new households springing up in semi-rural environments are young families driven out of the City by the massive immigrant-renter and boomer-investor driven bubbles in land prices. The tree-changers are attracted by the cheaper regional land prices which allow an affordable traditional life-style for their families (back-yard for the kids, shed for the bloke, village community for the missus,) whilst still living within a return day-trip to family, friends and firms in the City.

    But, as the founder of the dismal science once inferred, there is only so much edible chocolate cake to go around. Michael Buxton argues we are running up against the natural limits of the contemporary urban development model:

    A DANGEROUS cocktail of increased fire risk and higher populations is emerging on the periphery of many Australian cities and regional centres.

    Governments usually have been in denial over this issue. The population growth rates of many of these “peri-urban” municipalities is double the state averages. Increasing numbers of Australians are building houses on small rural lots in some of the most fire-prone land in the world. Many of these new houses cannot be defended against fire.

    Many people understandably want it all. But buying a semi-rural lifestyle close to a metropolitan area often has unintended consequences. More than 4000 rural dwellings have been built in six municipalities on the Melbourne fringe since 1998, but 52,000 rural lots remain undeveloped. More dispersed development will place many more people in harm’s way, unprepared for a major bushfire.

    Massive immigration looks great on the economic balance sheet, which is how most elites make decisions. But it is a disaster for the ecologic balance sheet. Eventually nature bites back.

  59. observa
    February 12th, 2009 at 11:13 | #59

    It would seem John Brumby is preempting the insurance industry-

    ‘As Premier John Brumby warned that the death toll in Marysville alone could reach 100 — a fifth of the town’s population — the State Government was planning a drastic policy change that will prevent it being rebuilt in anything like its original form…..

    Mr Brumby’s longstanding opposition to any changes that would make housing more expensive has been rocked by the huge death toll in the town wiped out by Saturday’s bushfires.

    The Age believes Mr Brumby will announce today that Victoria will leapfrog other states by imposing Australia’s toughest standard for high-fire-risk areas — ending the common practice of building flammable houses in fire-prone bush.

    Experts say that forcing residents on Melbourne’s fringe to build high-tech, fire-resistant housing could add $20,000 to the cost of a home.’

    Sounds about right cost wise, with a further caveat that it will restrict architectural design choice (more function less form) unless money is no object. Perhaps the other thing we’ll have to think about is making toilet/bathroom blocks in national parks and camping spots double as fire retreats in particulrly vulnerable areas at least.

  60. smiths
    February 12th, 2009 at 17:47 | #60

    13,000 firefighters are no longer skeptical,

    they want some real action,

    some opf the brave skeptics around here should volunteer to explain to them why even though their lives are at risk increasingly, we dont know yet about the science…

    February 12th, 2009 at 21:28 | #61

    I used to visit my sons grandmother who lived on a sheep property near Broadford. 15 years ago I was told by friends and family at the farm to look out for spot fires and vechiles acting scpiciciously. I questioned why. The answer I got was alarming. We have a lot of problems with Arsonists. I was 9 years old in Central Queensland when my father asked my brother 10 and myself to fight a fire lit by an Arsonist my father saw light the fire. The Arsonist drove away quickly and was never caught. The fire became large within minuites.

    In Queensland my relatives are battling floods, My immeditate family have only a few months ago been through our own disaster with a horriffic hail storm. My children were screaming as the frount of our house was broken up with the hail and the lounge window broken. A peice of flying glass went sideways though our lounge door and down the hallway at the kids, our two cats and dog and me. Our cat became a hero as He took the glass in his leg and it bounced of him and tapped me on the shoulder not injuring me. The vet was helpful and our cat has made a full recovery.

    My children as are most children in our town slowly getting over their fear of storms.

    My sons grandmother lives near Broadford, around 3kms from a very small town called Glenaroura. I dont know if she or her property survived the fires. All I can do is hope and pray she is allright. Bev had so many friends who had farms like herself and were around her age late 70s to 80s. They loved the land were they spent most of their lives. Some all their lives. It is hard to think that some of them could be gone now and their farms in such a horriffic way. They lived their lives to the fullest and loved the land and its people in their area. I want so many Australians to take a minuite to remember their bravery. This was akin to a war, a war against nature. It is with great sadness that I write this as I remember when Summer would come and my family and their friends would be on the look out for fires lit by Arsonist. It is so sad that it was so hard to catch them and stop it from happening. Now they may have lost their lives and everything they loved. Let us not forget their animals, their horses, sheep, cattle and their dogs, cats and chooks. Spare a thought for the wildlife too the native birds that would sing in the trees, the kangaroos that would jump across the hills, the koalas in the trees. There was so much and more that made this area so uniquely Australian and so beautiful. These farmers I knew cared for and loved thought for years against Arsonist. Protecting what they loved. It is beyond words and with so much pain in my heart when I realise that they may have died at the hands of Arsonists.

    We love our country, People should not have to suffer like this.

    I do believe global warming is making Australian weather conditions hotter than they have been in past decades. I also believe this with a combination of a lot more people moving to areas outside of Melbourne that are prone to bad bushfires is a factor. Along with the social issues with Arsonist being a threat in these areas. The combination of warmer drier weather, bigger popuations and Arsonists on the increase. Is an enviromental and social problem.

    Anyone with imformation on Bev please contact me on the following Email Address [email protected]

    I would kindly appreicate anyone letting me know if she is safe.

  62. Greg Wood
    February 12th, 2009 at 22:42 | #62

    Jack @58;
    You’re spot on with your view of the root of the problem.
    For some reason though it seems to be an invisible concept to those chewing on the band-aids of bunkers and building code regulation.

    Cleaning up the vitals of planning and contrived demand growth is obviously too radical to be confronted. Let’s face it. A real cure to the problem would be bad for the economy. Couldn’t have that!

    Although seeing as the economy is collapsing irretrievably anyway, it seems a great time to move to an entirely new model. Why not mindfully embrace zero growth rather than gut ourselves in sheer terror of it?

  63. February 15th, 2009 at 08:31 | #63

    Of course, I endorse the views of Greg Wood amd jack strocchi

    The website I administer has attracted a considerable number of visitors and articles concerning the Victorian bush fires. They concern the conservation and land-use planning implications of the bush fires. They pose questions about what are the best long-term solution to the problem and challenge many mainstream views about the bush fires. The articles can be found at candobetter.org/VictorianFires2009.

    The bush fires further confirm the views of those who have been arguing for years that runaway population growth, particularly when urban planning is as abysmal as it is in Australia (largely thanks to Malcolm Fraser having abolished Whitlam’s Department of Urban and Regional Development) is unsustainable.

    An article, which I therefore consider related to this tragedy is “How the growth lobby threatens Australia’s future”, which has been re-published on Online Opinion together with a discussion forum.

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