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Greater knowledge to battle bushfires

Date
Smoke covers Parliament House during the 2003 Canberra bushfires.

Smoke covers Parliament House during the 2003 Canberra bushfires. Photo: Jacky Ghossein

Communities are now far better placed to cope with disasters such as the 2003 Canberra bushfires, according to a group of Australia's leading bushfire experts.

But research findings from the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009, drawn from interviews with those affected, have shown people were psychologically unprepared to respond to threatening bushfires, and that those potentially in the path of fires felt disconnected from any personal risk or danger.

Those "disturbing" findings also showed there was little link between householder preparation and a home's chances of avoiding destruction.

Three of Australia's leading bushfire experts - Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre research director Richard Thornton, the Bureau of Meteorology's Jeff Kepert and La Trobe University Adjunct Professor Jim McLennan - briefed the media on the state of bushfire knowledge in Australia on Thursday.

The briefing comes in the lead-up to reminders of two of the country's worst fire disasters - the 10th anniversary of the 2003 Canberra bushfires and the 30th anniversary of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, which raged in Victoria and South Australia.

Dr Thornton said significant scientific progress had been made since those disasters, giving authorities a far greater understanding of fire behaviour and mechanics.

"Clearly both anniversaries are going to be important to a lot of people who lived through those events," Dr Thornton said.

"There is still a lot to know, but certainly we're in a much better position than we were [for] Ash Wednesday or probably even in 2003 in the Canberra bushfires.

"But as we know from Black Saturday, these things will happen, we can't stop the days like Black Saturday , the community will see those sorts of fires again," he said.

Dr Thornton said building codes had improved greatly in recent years and fire agencies were now better equipped and more knowledgeable.

The research by Dr McLennan, who is also a member of the Bushfire CRC, showed a "gloomy" outlook for communities properly preparing for bushfires.

But Dr McLennan said there had been some improvements in raising people's awareness about bushfire threats.

"It's not all doom and gloom," he said. "More people in the community do have an appreciation of the threat involved from bushfires and the kind of things that need to be done to survive, so I'm not saying it's been a total failure."

Dr Kepert said "enormous" advancements within the Bureau of Meteorology would greatly help communities to prepare for fire disasters.

He said meteorologists were now able to predict weather patterns extended over four days with a degree of accuracy equivalent to that of a one-day forecast at the time of the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983.

"That has meant - and we saw this in Black Saturday - that we can actually give earlier warnings that it is going to be a really, really bad day," Dr Kepert said.

"We can do that three or four days ahead of time," he said.

He said this allowed agencies to mobilise firefighting resources and communicate with threatened communities.

It also gave residents more time to plan and make better decisions in the face of an approaching bushfire.

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