Our Deadly Fire Gamble: Risk Your Life Or Bet Your House

Our Deadly Bushfire Gamble: Risk Your Life Or Bet Your House The aftermath of the bushfires that swept through the Blue Mountains last October. AAP Image/High Alpha

News images of traumatised homeowners huddled in front of the ashes of their homes have become increasingly familiar in recent years. But the question has to be asked - why are we so often surprised when bushfires strike, when so often they happen in known fire danger zones?

The fact that so many Australians don’t understand the risks of living in areas at risk from bushfires means that we have a national problem. It’s time to start debating what we do about it.

So what is the most appropriate way for residents and fire managers to prepare for uncontrolled bushfires?

Should we stick with the traditional “stay defend or go”, or should we heed the revamped slogan of “leave and live”? And are there any other strategies that we haven’t tried yet, no matter how difficult they might be?

Evacuate or stay to fight?

At one policy extreme is mandatory evacuation enforced by government authorities. This is not widely practised in Australia but is the norm in North America. This policy maximises the preservation of life, but at the cost of committing homes to destruction that could conceivably be saved if residents were present to extinguish spot fires.

When people don’t stay behind, unchecked house fires can spread to neighbouring houses, potentially resulting in a firefighter’s worse nightmare – house to house ignitions burning down entire suburbs. Enforced evacuations create massive social disruption, and in the worse case could result in loss of life if traffic funnelled into clogged transport routes are overwhelmed by fire.

At the other policy extreme is the notion that home owners stay and defend their own properties, which has been the mainstay of Australian bushfire emergency response. Yet the risk with staying and defending homes is that individuals can massively underestimate the risks they face when they are inadequately prepared materially, physically and psychologically.

Residents can be killed in futile attempts to suppress raging fires, or by last minute escapes from the fire front. This is why the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission recommended a modification to the “stay defend or go” policy to mandatory evacuation under catastrophic fire weather conditions.

Clearly, the response to uncontrolled bushfires burning hinges on risk assessments made by residents. A lurking question is whether residents have sufficient knowledge to understand the information they are presented, both before and during a bushfire disaster.

Fire danger maps

Landscape ecologists and fire scientists are increasingly refining risk assessment of properties based on landscape setting that captures a range of risk factors, such as proximity to bushland, garden types and the construction of buildings.

Likewise, firefighters are developing clear protocols that allow them decide whether or not it is safe to attempt to save a property. In some situations, houses will be deliberately left to burn down to protect the lives of firefighters.

It is increasingly possible to combine both the landscape ecology perspective and the firefighting protocols to develop a reasonable assessment of an individual property’s risk using maps.

As Dr Kevin Tolhurst rightly argued this week, we need publicly available, easy-to-understand, detailed maps showing the areas that might be directly exposed to a bushfire under different severities of weather, including severe, extreme and “code red” conditions. As Dr Tolhurst put it:

Such maps would show where people might be exposed to a bushfire on a particular day and, importantly, areas not likely to be exposed that would therefore be a safe place to seek refuge. This would help answer the question: “Leave and go where?”

Producing those sorts of fire risk maps, not just for experts but also aimed at the public, has not yet been attempted on a broad scale.

Should this approach be rolled out, I suspect tens of thousands of properties in south-eastern Australia would be classified as indefensible from uncontrolled bushfires in severe bushfire weather conditions that are likely to occur at least once each summer.

I also suspect that the vast majority of residents in these at-risk properties are blissfully unaware of these risks.

Defending the indefensible

Our improved understanding of bushfire risk in urban areas raises thorny practical and philosophical issues.

Should government be taking stronger action to inform residents of fire risk, even using the law to force residents to reduce the risk to properties? Should more stringent planning tools be used to more tightly control development in areas identified as being at high risk of bushfire?

Should the government be identifying and disseminating information about areas where homes might be indefensible by firefighters under certain conditions?

None of those are easy solutions, because they would all have knock-on effects on property values, insurance rates, broader urban planning and go to the core rights and responsibilities of citizens.

It’s arguable that none of that is necessary, because the information is out there if people want to join the dots about whether their area is fire-prone. Yet the shock and devastation on the faces of so many fire survivors tells us that many Australians are not aware of how vulnerable their homes are.

So as a starting point, our federal, state and local governments should work together to develop publicly available fire risk maps. Australians need to be able to make genuinely informed decisions about where to live, and in what circumstances they should stay or leave when the heat is on.

Both as individuals and as a community, we need to take more responsibility for our own safety.

We simply can’t expect firefighters to keep trying to defend indefensible homes or, worse, to risk their lives to rescue homeowners who make bad bets on their own survival.The Conversation

About The Author

David Bowman, Professor, Environmental Change Biology, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Climate Adaptation Finance and Investment in California

by Jesse M. Keenan
0367026074This book serves as a guide for local governments and private enterprises as they navigate the unchartered waters of investing in climate change adaptation and resilience. This book serves not only as a resource guide for identifying potential funding sources but also as a roadmap for asset management and public finance processes. It highlights practical synergies between funding mechanisms, as well as the conflicts that may arise between varying interests and strategies. While the main focus of this work is on the State of California, this book offers broader insights for how states, local governments and private enterprises can take those critical first steps in investing in society’s collective adaptation to climate change. Available On Amazon

Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change Adaptation in Urban Areas: Linkages between Science, Policy and Practice

by Nadja Kabisch, Horst Korn, Jutta Stadler, Aletta Bonn
This open access book brings together research findings and experiences from science, policy and practice to highlight and debate the importance of nature-based solutions to climate change adaptation in urban areas. Emphasis is given to the potential of nature-based approaches to create multiple-benefits for society.

The expert contributions present recommendations for creating synergies between ongoing policy processes, scientific programmes and practical implementation of climate change and nature conservation measures in global urban areas. Available On Amazon

A Critical Approach to Climate Change Adaptation: Discourses, Policies and Practices

by Silja Klepp, Libertad Chavez-Rodriguez
9781138056299This edited volume brings together critical research on climate change adaptation discourses, policies, and practices from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Drawing on examples from countries including Colombia, Mexico, Canada, Germany, Russia, Tanzania, Indonesia, and the Pacific Islands, the chapters describe how adaptation measures are interpreted, transformed, and implemented at grassroots level and how these measures are changing or interfering with power relations, legal pluralismm and local (ecological) knowledge. As a whole, the book challenges established perspectives of climate change adaptation by taking into account issues of cultural diversity, environmental justicem and human rights, as well as feminist or intersectional approaches. This innovative approach allows for analyses of the new configurations of knowledge and power that are evolving in the name of climate change adaptation. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.




follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email



300 Million Face Severe Risk of Climate-Fueled Coastal Flooding by 2050
by Democracy Now!
As a shocking new report finds that many coastal cities will be flooded by rising sea levels by 2050, Chile’s President…
Climate Warning: California Continues To Burn, Data Estimates Of Global Flooding
Ben Strauss, CEO and Chief Scientist of Climate Central joins MTP Daily to discuss alarming new information about…
Stanford Climate Solutions
by Stanford
Climate change has brought us to a defining moment in human history.
Buying Renewable Energy From Your Neighbor
by NBC News
Brooklyn Microgrid, a project of parent company LO3 Energy, is looking to disrupt the more than 100-year-old energy…
Debate Over Pipelines Clouds Concern For Climate Change
by Global News
Climate experts are warning that Canada shouldn't ignore the wildfire crisis in California
How Climate Change Affects Wildfires
by NBC News
NYU environmental studies professor David Kanter explains how climate change is creating the perfect conditions for…
Rice Bowl Of Malaysia Threatened By Climate Change
by The Star Online
Kedah is known as the country’s “Rice Bowl,” and it is especially suitable for the growing of the grain.
Maine Cow's Seaweed Diet Research Could Help Climate Change
by News Center Maine
Research in Maine will measure the methane released by cows who have been fed a seaweed diet.


A Little Humour May Help With Climate Change Gloom
A Little Humour May Help With Climate Change Gloom
by Lakshmi Magon
This year, three studies showed that humour is useful for engaging the public about climate change.
Governments Took The Hard Road On Clean Energy – And Consumers Are Feeling The Bumps
Governments Took The Hard Road On Clean Energy – And Consumers Are Feeling The Bumps
by Guy Dundas
More than two years on from the sudden closure of Victoria’s Hazelwood coal power station, quite a mess remains.
Rising Seas Allow Coastal Wetlands To Store More Carbon
Rising Seas Allow Coastal Wetlands To Store More Carbon
by Kerrylee Rogers, et al
Coastal wetlands don’t cover much global area but they punch well above their carbon weight by sequestering the most…
Cape Town Is Almost Out Of Water. Could Australian Cities Suffer The Same Fate?
Cape Town Is Almost Out Of Water. Could Australian Cities Suffer The Same Fate?
by Ian Wright
The world is watching the unfolding Cape Town water crisis with horror. On “Day Zero”, now predicted to be just ten…
Labour's Low-carbon Warm Homes For All Could Revolutionise Social Housing
Labour's Low-carbon Warm Homes For All Could Revolutionise Social Housing
by Jo Richardson and David Coley
All homes built from 2022 onwards would be carbon neutral under a Labour government, according to a recent election…
Why The Global Climate Treaty Is Not Working
Why The Global Climate Treaty Is Not Working
by Tim Radford
Three out of four nations have yet to start to honour the global climate treaty. The world waits, the seas go on rising…
Why Taxes Are Better Than Bans For Keeping Homeowners From Rebuilding In Fire-plagued Areas
Why Taxes Are Better Than Bans For Keeping Homeowners From Rebuilding In Fire-plagued Areas
by Alexander Smith
Almost 200,000 Californians have been ordered to evacuate as ferocious winds drove several wildfires near Los Angeles,…
How Will 20 Years Of Houston’s Growth Affect Flooding?
How Will 20 Years Of Houston’s Growth Affect Flooding?
by InnerSelf Staff
A new way to show exactly how much the city of Houston has changed in the last two decades gives a dramatic visual…