The worst day ever in the history of the State.
In 2009, starting on January 28th, the State of Victoria – the second largest population centre in Australia, experienced its most severe heat wave in recorded history.
Many elderly people died; steel train tracks buckled; in one Melbourne park a thousand fruit bates fell dead from the trees.
By Monday February 2nd Claire Yeo, one of Victoria’s two fire meteorologists, noted that all the facts that create extreme fire weather were evident: high temperatures; strong, gusty winds; and very little moisture.
So terrible was the forecast that, when she had to brief assembled fire chiefs, meteorologists, and other specialists on the situation, she stood at her lectern for some time, hanging her head and unable to speak.
Yeo’s predictions were accurate.
Saturday 7th February 2009 was the hottest day in Melbourne since records began to be kept in 1855. The temperature reached 46.4 degrees Celsius (115.5 degrees Fahrenheit) in Melbourne and a hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit elsewhere in the state.
Humidity was just six per cent and a strong wind was blowing from the northwest.
The six hundred fires that started that day were not just the deadliest that Australia had ever known but among the worst the world had seen for decades.
These extreme conditions were recognised by the Victorian Government and fire agencies. Prior to 7 February, Victorians were warned from the Premier down that the Saturday was likely to be ‘the worst day ever in the history of the State’.
These dreadful expectations were matched by the calamity that resulted on 7 February.
Many long-serving Country Fire Authority officers had not experienced such fires. The rate of spread of the fires equalled the maximum previously recorded, and the prolific spotting made fire behaviour on the day unique.
Reports referred to flames leaping 100 metres into the air, generating heat so intense that aluminium road signs melted. The plume of the fires created a convection effect that generated winds so strong that trees appeared to have been screwed from the ground.
One hundred and seventy-three people died in the fires.
A Royal Commission was established to inquire into the catastrophe.
A Royal Commission is an administrative inquiry established by Executive Government which, by long tradition, operates independently.
A Royal Commission is a valuable mechanism by which the circumstances of the involvement of government or government agencies in an event like the 7 February bushfires can be thoroughly examined in a public setting. A Royal Commission has broad investigative powers. It is not under a duty to reach a definitive verdict. It has a duty to report on the nature of its inquiries, explaining what conclusions were drawn from its investigations and what advice it should give the Executive Government based on its deliberations.
A key element of the Royal Commission’s report was on the importance and failings of the communication systems on that dreadful day.
Timely warnings save lives. The community expects and depends on detailed and high quality information prior to, during, and after bushfires. The community is also entitled to receive timely and accurate bushfire warnings whenever possible, based on the intelligence available to the control agencies.
There were a number of weaknesses and failures with Victoria’s information and warning systems on 7 February.
Warnings were often delayed which meant that many people were not warned at all or the amount of time they had to respond to the warnings was much less than it should have been.
The warnings that were issued often did not give people a clear understanding of the location and severity of the fire and how they should respond.
The methods of delivery of the warnings were also inadequate.
Some techniques for raising awareness such as the use of an emergency warning signal to capture people’s attention when warnings are broadcast were not used. Similarly, other avenues for issuing and raising awareness of warnings were not encouraged, such as the use of local sirens or the use of commercial radio and television.
Finally, the sources of information and warnings that were available during the fire did not cope well with the level of demand. People had difficulty getting onto the relevant websites and about 80 per cent of the calls to the Victorian Bushfire Information Line were unanswered. Often the information available through these sources was incomplete or out of date.
During the afternoon of 7 February the emergency telephone call services (Telstra’s Triple Zero service and the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority) experienced unprecedented demand which resulted in serious failures. Large numbers of calls were not answered and many callers could not be connected to the relevant authorities, leading to a significant number of abandoned calls. The collapse of the system caused extreme stress to both the callers and the operators.
The Royal Commission recommended the following improvements in Victoria’s information and warning system:
• improving the quality of bushfire information and warning messages by adopting standard language already developed for national usage
• simplifying the format of bushfire warnings
• reintroducing the Standard Emergency Warning Signal to draw attention to broadcast warnings about life threatening fires
• extending the broadcasting of official warnings to commercial radio and television
• allowing the reintroduction of sirens in local communities where there is demand for them
• supporting the acceleration of the full introduction of a nationally developed telephone based automatic warning system
• pursuing research into the development of improved fire danger index systems
• enhancing the role of the Bureau of Meteorology in issuing daily information on bushfire risk
• improving technology and processes to accelerate the updating of common bushfire information on agency websites
• increasing the capacity of the bushfire emergency networks, the Victorian Bushfire Information Line, Telstra’s Triple Zero service and the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority to better handle peak demands, and to work more collaboratively during severe fire risk days.
The lessons of Black Saturday are relevant to any country, society, organisation or family that is seeking to protect its citizens or members in the time of urgent and critical need.
May they be lessons never forgotten.
Based in part on “The Inferno”; The New Yorker October 26, 2009 and the Executive Summary to the Interim Report of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission