If you live in a bushfire-prone area, you’ll likely have considered what you will do in the event of a bushfire.
The decision, which should be made well in advance of bushfire season, is whether to stay and actively defend a well-prepared property or to leave the area while it’s safe to do so.
The emphasis in bushfire safety is on leaving early. This is the safest option.
In “catastrophic” fire conditions, the message from NSW Rural Fire Service is that for your survival, leaving early is the only option.
How a bushfire can destroy a home
In other fire conditions, staying and defending requires accurately assessing the safety of your house and the surrounding environment, preparing your property in line with current best practice and understanding fire conditions.
It also requires a realistic assessment of not just your personal physical capacity to stay and defend but also your psychological capacity.
Our survey of people who experienced the 2017 NSW bushfires asked what they would do next summer if there were catastrophic conditions. Some 27% would get ready to stay and defend, and 24% said they would wait to see if there was a fire before deciding whether to stay and defend or leave.
Animal ownership, a lack of insurance, and valuable assets such as agricultural sheds and equipment, are motivators for decisions to stay and defend.
How we plan for animals in emergencies
If animal owners aren’t home they will often return to their properties when bushfire warnings are issued, contrary to official advice, to retrieve or protect their animals and physical assets.
Although these decisions are understandable they can also lead people who aren’t physically or psychologically suited to staying and defending to do so.
The reality is that a bushfire is a threatening, high-risk situation. It’s hard to see, hard to breathe, noisy and hot.
These conditions can overwhelm our ability to think clearly and act calmly. People in the Sampson Flat Fire in South Australia in 2015, for example, experienced high levels of stress which caused them to:
This is one person’s account of how they responded as the fire approached:
[I] grabbed my son […] saw the smoke and […] went and got the boxes that I’d prepared which I packed when he was a baby. So I had stupid things in the boxes, like baby outfits. But I can’t freak him out […]
[I]n the back of my mind I’m thinking about what do I need to do […] I’ve quarter a tank of diesel, I’d better go get diesel. I also had a back seat full of books that I’d been tidying up [from] his room, so I thought op shop, better do that because I’ll clear the back seat. […]
Came in the house like a mad woman screaming for cats, nowhere in sight. I’ve got four cats and not one of them [is there]. Grabbed a bag and then started putting stupid amounts of clothes in like 20 pair of socks, and then basically I threw the dog in the car. […] So flat panic.
The spectrum of actions from frenzy and flight to freezing reflects the model of “affective tolerance”. When stress exceeds what we can tolerate, we can become hyper-aroused and may have racing thoughts and act impulsively.
Or we may experience hypo-arousal, where we shut down and feel numb and passive.
Our brains consist of three basic parts: the brain stem, limbic system and cortex. These are sometimes described as the primitive, emotional and thinking brains.
In most situations, our thinking brain mediates physical responses to the world around us.
But under high amounts of stress, this connecting loop between the more reactive emotional and physical parts of our brain and our thinking cortex becomes separated. University of California, Los Angeles, professor of psychiatry Dan Siegel describes this as flipping our lid.
Flipping our lid is an automatic response and, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s a highly useful one – we don’t have time to think about whether or not to run when our lives are threatened.
But in a bushfire, these automatic responses are often not the best way to respond and can prompt us to make unsafe decisions.
To survive a bushfire, we need to make complex and often highly emotional decisions in rapidly changing conditions.
In an analysis of 33 people who survived extreme conditions in the Black Saturday bushfires, researchers tentatively concluded that the major contributor to their survival was their ability to maintain their mental focus. They could control their fear and keep their attention on the threat and how to respond.
In order to stay and defend safely, it’s vital to have the skills to re-connect the loop between the thinking and the automatic and feeling parts of the brain.
The AIM model, based on stress inoculation theory, suggests preparing before bushfire by anticipating, identifying and developing strategies for coping with stress:
anticipate: know how the brain and body responds in an emergency (and that these are normal)
identify: be aware that this response is occurring (what is happening in your mind/body that tells you that you are acting from the “basement brain”)
manage: have practised strategies for switching mindsets and re-establishing the brain loop.
A large Australian study shows people who are better psychologically prepared for a bushfire:
Currently, the most accessible resource on developing mental preparedness is the Australian Red Cross RediPlan guide which includes preparing your mind based on the AIM (anticipate, identify, manage) model.
The impacts of the bushfires that are overwhelming emergency services in New South Wales and Queensland suggest houses are being built in areas where the risks are high. We rely heavily on emergency services to protect people and property, but strategic land-use planning can improve resilience and so help reduce the risk in the first place. This would mean giving more weight to considering bushfire hazards at the earliest stages of planning housing supply.
The outstanding dedication of emergency agencies such as the NSW Rural Fire Service and Queensland Fire and Emergency Service is obvious in their efforts to save lives and properties despite the increasing intensity of fires. However, strategic land-use planning could help reduce the risks by being more responsive to such changes in hazards.
Comprehensive management of bushfire risk should include a strategic planning focus on reducing the pressures on emergency services and communities. We may have to rethink land-use planning approaches that prove inadequate to deal with the increasing intensity and unpredictability of natural hazards.
Strategic planning policies and practices provide the opportunity to be more attentive to changes in bushfire hazards in particular. Planning decisions that fail to do this may leave communities exposed and heavily reliant on emergency services during a disaster.
Locating new or expanding existing settlements and infrastructure in areas exposed to unreasonable risk is irresponsible.
The increasing intensity of hazards associated with climate change makes strategic planning even more relevant. Land-use planners could help greatly with building resilience by placing natural hazards at the top of their assessment criteria.
Coordinating land-use planning reforms is itself a challenge. Planning in Australia involves many policies, institutions, professions and decision-makers. Policies and processes differ depending on the state or territory.
Furthermore, planners must reconcile the demand for residential land from population growth and the need to protect the environment. Deciding where to locate housing is often fraught with complexity, so the process needs expert early input from relevant scientific communities and emergency services.
Land-use planning offers an opportunity in the earliest phase of development to manage the combined pressures of population growth, urban expansion, increasing density and risks of natural hazards.
When rezoning land for residential development, many issues have to be considered. These include environmental sustainability, demand for housing and the location of existing buildings and infrastructure, as well as natural hazards. It’s a complex and intricate process, but clearly the strategic planning stage is the first opportunity to minimise exposure to bushfire risk.
Existing policy and processes may defer the detailed review of bushfire risk and other natural hazards to development stages after land has been rezoned. There’s a case for policy to increase the importance attached to bushfire hazards at this early stage.
Ultimately, strategic planners aim to locate settlements away from risk of natural hazards. However, bushfires continue to have disastrous impacts on people and properties. Ongoing demand for housing may add pressure to build in areas exposed to risk.
Settlements are pushing into undeveloped areas that are more likely to be exposed to bushfire risk. The role of strategic land-use planning then becomes even more critical. The devastation we have seen this month shows why this risk must be given the highest priority in land-use planning, particularly when zoning land as residential.
The increasing intensity of bushfires points to a need to rethink planning processes and mitigation strategies to reduce exposure to such hazards before they arise. This will help ease the burden on emergency services of managing a disaster when it happens. We can’t ignore the opportunities to minimise the risks at the early stages of land-use planning. Key steps include:
Mark Maund, PhD Candidate, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle; Kim Maund, Discipline Head – Construction Management, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle, and Thayaparan Gajendran, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle
It’s hard to comprehend why someone would deliberately light a bushfire. Yet this behaviour regularly occurs in Australia and other countries. We would go a long way to preventing bushfires if we better understood this troubling phenomenon.
Experts estimate about 85% of bushfires are caused by humans. A person may accidentally or carelessly start a fire, such as leaving a campfire unattended or using machinery which creates sparks. Or a person could maliciously light a fire.
This criminal behaviour is not widely recognised or understood by the public, fire authorities or researchers. This means opportunities to prevent bushfires are generally being missed and resources devoted to tackling the cause are far from commensurate with the devastating consequences.
Research has shown about 8% of officially recorded vegetation fires were attributed to malicious lighting, and another 22% as suspicious. However, about 40% of officially recorded vegetation fires did not have an assigned cause. When unassigned bushfires were investigated by fire investigators, the majority were found to be maliciously lit.
But official fires are just the tip of the iceberg: the actual number of bushfires in Australia is thought to be about five times that recorded. Virtually none of these unrecorded fires are investigated.
Young men comprise the largest group of people who maliciously light fires. These youth are usually troubled, likely to have absent fathers and little home supervision. They are likely to have experienced child abuse and neglect and associated with an antisocial peer group. Lighting fires may give a feeling of excitement, defiance and power, or it may be an expression of displaced anger. Some offenders have an intellectual disability.
Offenders may make no attempt to extinguish the fire, and give little consideration to the consequences. Some may have no feelings of remorse or fear of punishment. Others may never have intended to create such wide devastation.
Older males who light malicious fires also have a history of social and educational disadvantage, poor family functioning in childhood, low self-esteem, and often a pathological interest in fire. However the older the person gets, the less likely they are to light fires.
During last week’s east-coast bushfire crisis, a handful of news reports covered people lighting fires. They include a teenager who allegedly lit a Queensland bushfire that razed 14 homes, and a man charged with starting a Sydney fire by letting off fireworks.
Media attention on a fire’s cause is generally scant and the public rarely hears much beyond initial charges being laid. This is in stark contrast to blanket news coverage of the consequences of bushfires.
Fire brigades in most states offer a limited education course for some children who light fires, usually led by volunteers. But there are few targeted treatment programs for those who light bushfires.
Rather than tackling the cause of the problem, the major response to bushfire in Australia is mitigation. This largely involves one blunt approach: hazard reduction burns to reduce bushfire fuel loads. This is an increasingly difficult task as climate change makes weather conditions more unsuitable for controlled burns.
This business-as-usual approach has not halted the upward trajectory of bushfire ignitions.
A much greater focus on prevention would require a significant rethinking of the bushfire problem. This would include collaboration between government, business, non-government organisations, communities and others.
Victoria’s Gippsland Arson Prevention Program provides a promising model. Through public education, media engagement and other means, it informs communities on how to help prevent arson. The committee includes Victoria Police, government and fire authorities and local power generators.
In one example of an on-the-ground response, local authorities organised the removal of dumped cars, which are commonly seen by bored and troubled youth as an invitation to start a fire.
Arson prevention also includes addressing long-term problems such as youth disadvantage and unemployment, especially in rural-urban fringe areas where most human-lit fires occur.
Shorter-term approaches include providing support and treatment to at-risk youth, and situational crime prevention such as good lighting and cameras in places vulnerable to fire lighting.
We must open up a society-wide discussion of bushfire prevention, which includes listening to local communities about what they value and what can be done about the problem. As climate change worsens – and bushfires along with it – a radical rethink is required.
New South Wales and Queensland are in the grip of a devastating bushfire emergency, which has tragically resulted in the loss of homes and lives.
But the smoke produced can affect many more people not immediately impacted by the fires – even people many kilometres from the fire. The smoke haze blanketing parts of NSW and Queensland has seen air quality indicators exceed national standards over recent days.
Studies have shown there is no safe level of air pollution, and as pollution levels increase, so too do the health risks. Air pollution caused nine million premature deaths globally in 2015. In many ways, airborne pollution is like cigarette smoking – causing respiratory disease, heart disease and stroke, lung infections, and even lung cancer.
However, these are long-term studies looking at what happens over a person’s life with prolonged exposure to air pollution. With bushfire-related air pollution, air quality is reduced for relatively short periods.
But it’s still worth exercising caution if you live in an affected area, particularly if you have an existing health condition that might put you at higher risk.
The exposure levels will vary widely from the site of the fire to 10 or 50 kilometres away from the source.
The national standard for clean air in Australia is less than 8 micrograms/m³ of ultrafine particles. This is among the lowest in the world, meaning the Australian government wants us to remain one of the least polluted countries there is.
8 micrograms/m³ refers to the weight of the particles in micrograms contained in one cubic meter of air. A typical grain of sand weighs 50 micrograms. When people talk about ultrafine particles the term PM, referring to particulate matter, is often used. The size of PM we worry the most about are the small particles of less than 2.5 micrometres which can penetrate deep into the lungs, called PM2.5.
To put this in perspective, Randwick, a coastal suburb in Sydney which was more than 25km from any of the fires yesterday, had PM2.5 readings of around 40 micrograms/m³. Some suburbs which sit more inland had readings of around 50 micrograms/m³. Today, these levels have already reduced to around 20 micrograms/m³ across Sydney.
We’re seeing a similar effect in Queensland. Today’s PM2.5 readings at Cannon Hill, a suburb close to central Brisbane, are 21.5 micrograms/m³, compared with 4.7 micrograms/m³ one month ago.
A number of health alerts were issued for areas across NSW and Queensland earlier this week.
While these numbers may seem alarming compared to the 8 microgram/m³ threshold, the recent air pollution in India’s New Delhi caused by crop burning reached levels of 900 micrograms/m³. So what we’re experiencing here pales in comparison.
However, this doesn’t mean the levels in NSW and Queensland are without danger. Historically, when there are bushfires, emergency department presentations for respiratory and heart conditions increase, showing people with these conditions are most at risk of experiencing adverse health effects.
Preliminary analysis of emergency department data shows hospitals in the mid-north coast of NSW, where fires were at their worst, have had 68 presentations to emergency departments for asthma or breathing problems over the last week. This is almost double the usual number.
One study looked at the association between exposure to smoke events in Sydney and premature deaths, and found there was a 5% increase in mortality during bushfires from 1994 to 2007.
But it’s important to understand these deaths would have occurred in the people most vulnerable to the effects of smoke, such as people with pre-exsisiting lung and heart conditions, who tend to be older people.
For people who are otherwise healthy, the health risks are much lower.
But as the frequency of bushfires increases, many scientists in the field speculate these health effects may become more of a concern across the population.
If you’re in an affected area, it’s best to avoid smoke exposure where possible by staying indoors with the windows and doors closed and the air conditioner turned on.
If you are experiencing any unusual symptoms, such as shortness of breath or chest pain, or just do not feel well, you should speak to your health care professional and in an emergency, go to hospital.
How rising temperatures affect our health
Once the fires have been put out, depending upon the region, local weather conditions and the size of the fire, air quality can return to healthy levels within a few days.
In extreme situations, it might take weeks or months to return to normal. But we are fortunate to be living in a country with good air quality most of the time.
Brian Oliver, Research Leader in Respiratory cellular and molecular biology at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research and Senior Lecturer, School of Medical & Molecular Biosciences, University of Technology Sydney
Last week saw an unprecedented outbreak of large, intense fires stretching from the mid-north coast of New South Wales into central Queensland.
The most tragic losses are concentrated in northern NSW, where 970,000 hectares have been burned, three people have died, and at least 150 homes have been destroyed.
A catastrophic fire warning for Tuesday has been issued for the Greater Sydney, Greater Hunter, Shoalhaven and Illawarra areas. It is the first time Sydney has received a catastrophic rating since the rating system was developed in 2009.
No relief is in sight from this extremely hot, dry and windy weather, and the extraordinary magnitude of these fires is likely to increase in the coming week. Alarmingly, as Australians increasingly seek a sea-change or tree-change, more people are living in the path of these destructive fires.
Large fires have happened before in northern NSW and southern Queensland during spring and early summer (for example in 1994, 1997, 2000, 2002, and 2018 in northern NSW). But this latest extraordinary situation raises many questions.
It is as if many of the major fires in the past are now being rerun concurrently. What is unprecedented is the size and number of fires rather than the seasonal timing.
The potential for large, intense fires is determined by four fundamental ingredients: a continuous expanse of fuel; extensive and continuous dryness of that fuel; weather conditions conducive to the rapid spread of fire; and ignitions, either human or lightning. These act as a set of switches, in series: all must be “on” for major fires to occur.
The NSW north coast and tablelands, along with much of the southern coastal regions of Queensland are famous for their diverse range of eucalypt forest, heathlands and rainforests, which flourish in the warm temperate to subtropical climate.
These forests and shrublands can rapidly accumulate bushfire fuels such as leaf litter, twigs and grasses. The unprecedented drought across much of Australia has created exceptional dryness, including high-altitude areas and places like gullies, water courses, swamps and steep south-facing slopes that are normally too wet to burn.
These typically wet parts of the landscape have literally evaporated, allowing fire to spread unimpeded. The drought has been particularly acute in northern NSW where record low rainfall has led to widespread defoliation and tree death. It is no coincidence current fires correspond directly with hotspots of record low rainfall and above-average temperatures.
Thus, the North Coast and northern ranges of NSW as well as much of southern and central Queensland have been primed for major fires. A continuous swathe of critically dry fuels across these diverse landscapes existed well before last week, as shown by damaging fires in September and October.
High temperatures and wind speeds, low humidity, and a wave of new ignitions on top of pre-existing fires has created an unprecedented situation of multiple large, intense fires stretching from the coast to the tablelands and parts of the interior.
Many parts of the NSW north coast, southern Queensland and adjacent hinterlands have seen population growth around major towns and cities, as people look for pleasant coastal and rural homes away from the capital cities.
The extraordinary number and ferocity of these fires, plus the increased exposure of people and property, have contributed to the tragic results of the past few days.
How a bushfire can destroy a home
Communities flanked by forests along the coast and ranges are highly vulnerable because of the way fires spread under the influence of strong westerly winds. Coastal communities wedged between highly flammable forests and heathlands and the sea, are particularly at risk.
As a full picture of the extent and location of losses and damage becomes available, we will see the extent to which planning, building regulations, and fire preparation has mitigated losses and damage.
These unprecedented fires are an indication that a much-feared future under climate change may have arrived earlier than predicted. The week ahead will present high-stakes new challenges.
The most heavily populated region of the nation is now at critically dry levels of fuel moisture, below those at the time of the disastrous Christmas fires of 2001 and 2013. Climate change has been predicted to strongly increase the chance of large fires across this region. The conditions for Tuesday are a real and more extreme manifestation of these longstanding predictions.
Whatever the successes and failures in this crisis, it is likely that we will have to rethink the way we plan and prepare for wildfires in a hotter, drier and more flammable world.