Opinion: Fire complacency could cost your life

December 5, 2019 BY

CFA chief officer Steve Warrington.

VICTORIA is at the start of another hot, dry and difficult fire season. That was clear on November 21 when we called the first ‘Code Red’ fire danger rating in almost 10 years. That day, we saw catastrophic fire conditions with more than 150 fires start, some of which continue to burn today.

There is no denying that climate change is increasing the frequency, severity and timing of dangerous bushfire weather conditions.

Into the future, extreme heat and drought are likely to compound, leading to more fires with more extreme fire behaviours.

More than 30 years ago, Ash Wednesday became a tragic new milestone for fire conditions in our state when 75 Victorians and South Australians lost their lives. The majority of these deaths occurred as people attempted to evacuate at the last minute.

These deaths, coupled with research on the flammability of buildings, led to the general idea that if you couldn’t leave well ahead of a fire, the safest thing was to stay and defend the house.
That approach was supported by fire services for many years.

Tragically when Black Saturday devastated our state in 2009, we realised we needed to do more to keep people safe.

The 2009 Victorian bushfires introduced us to catastrophic bushfire conditions, the likes of which had never been seen in modern Australia.

In catastrophic, or ‘Code Red’ conditions as they are now known, any fire that ignites will be uncontrollable, unpredictable and fast moving. Fire services will find it very difficult to put them out. We now know that houses simply cannot withstand a fire in these conditions and even the best prepared homes will not be safe. We learnt the tragic consequences of that fact in the 2009 Victorian bushfires. Of the more than 170 people who died, more than 130 died in or near their homes.

We realised that day that staying and defending in those conditions was a futile venture with the most heartbreaking outcomes. And that’s why we talk incessantly about leaving early. Weather conditions have changed. Fires have changed. Our behaviour must now change too.

Immediately following the 2009 disaster, community survey data showed that more Victorians than ever intended to leave early on days of extreme and Code Red fire danger. Unfortunately, as the horror of these fires moves deeper into our past, complacency has begun to creep in. We are seeing steady decreases in the number of people who intend to leave early.

As a fire agency, we fear that Victorians are sliding into a “wait and see” mentality with no clear plan or trigger point of what to do and when. We are heading back to the attitudes which saw dozens of people die on Ash Wednesday.

We cannot allow this to happen. That’s why CFA and our agency partners have launched a new advertising campaign which you will have seen in this newspaper, on television, online and heard on your local radio.

The ads are unapologetic in their confronting imagery. We need to shock the community into action. The ads ask ‘how well do you know fire?’ and I ask you now: did you know that radiant heat can kill you from over 300 metres away? Did you know that a single ember can start a new fire from 40km away? Did you know fire can travel at 25km per hour?

Being unaware of these dangers could cost the lives of you and your family.

This fire season, we are asking every Victorian living in high-risk fire areas to take responsibility for their own safety.

If your home is in a high fire risk area, the only way to guarantee that you will survive a fire on days of Extreme or Code Red conditions, is leave early and not be there. No home, farm or business is worth your life.

I urge you, please plan ahead and stay safe this season.

Steve Warrington
Chief officer, Country Fire Authority

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