Black Saturday study looks at bushfire risk

By Natalie Muller 18 January 2012
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Research into Black Saturday bushfires confirms clearing vegetation around houses is the best way to protect them.

ON 7 FEBRUARY 2009, the worst bushfires in Australia’s history tore through parts of Victoria, killing 173 people and destroying more than 2000 homes. This devastation left by the Black Saturday fires has formed the basis of a unique study that sheds light on how houses could be better protected in future blazes.

A team of scientists from Australia and the United States examined 500 of the homes that were affected, comparing the impacts of measures like prescribed burning, grazing, logging of native forests, and clearing bush. The results, published today in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, show getting rid of vegetation within 40m of a house was by far the best bet.

“Black Saturday provided an unprecedented opportunity to learn about the effects of land management on house loss,” says senior author Dr Philip Gibbons, a landscape ecologist at the Australian National University in Canberra. “During the Black Saturday fires, 69 per cent of all deaths were in houses; so it’s really important to look at how you better protect houses during bushfires.”

See before-and-after photos of the Black Saturday bushfires here

Clearing vegetation best bet

The researchers found that prescribed burning, touted as a possible solution after Black Saturday, offered only moderate protection to houses. Logging native forests also had no impact on reducing house loss.

Instead, says Philip, clearing trees and shrubs close to properties was the best thing anyone could do on Black Saturday. “It was twice as effective as prescribed burning,” he says.

But he stresses that the protection of houses during extreme fires can never be guaranteed, and that the onus is on homeowners to clear vegetation around their properties and always have an early evacuation plan.

Growing bushfire risk

Professor David Bowman, an expert in forest ecology and bushfire management at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, says the research is useful because it confirms scientifically what we already know.

“It does open up some pretty intense political issues,” he says. “You’ve got to ask the question: why are people living in these areas if these disasters are only going to keep happening? Why do peri-urban communities exist?” Population growth in bushland areas and more frequent bushfire weather predicted with climate change are expected to create major challenges for protecting homes in the future.

“It’s really important that we get more effective at mitigating the effects of bushfires,” says Philip. “The next major bushfire will be even more devastating unless we continue to learn from Black Saturday.” 

See before-and-after photos of the Black Saturday bushfires here