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The government of Victoria is going through a hand-wringing exercise about the devastation of the bush fires, particularly Black Saturday.  Thirty-four people died in the town of Marysville following the delivery of a report (prepared for Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner) declaring that everyone in the town was safe.

That the intensity of the bush fires took everyone by surprise is not at issue; the real questions are about the wisdom of the “stay or flee ” policy that is currently in favor and the CFA (Country Fire Authority) warnings that seem to have been seriously negligent in giving  residents at risk  timely warnings of the dangerous inferno.

A national review of disaster preparedness done three years ago found the states’ ability to warn its citizens inadequate to the task.  Most people here simply call 000 in the case of emergencies.  When the lines get overloaded, the calls get farmed out to centers that do not necessarily have adequate information to assess a risky situation for the caller.  In the case of the bush fires, neither the telephone or the internet was up to the task of saving citizens.

Even though the adjacent town of Narbethong was under ember attack hours before the blaze approached Marysville, there was no idication of that on the CFA website.  A map indicating that Marysville was in the path of an inferno was faxed to a nearby incident control center just one hour before the town was engulfed in flames.  The nearby town of Srathewen was not even mentioned in the warning. Twenty-seven people died there on February 7, the infamous day now known as “Black Saturday.”

Kinglake fire devastation - Reuters/ Mike Tsikas

Kinglake fire devastation - Reuters/ Mike Tsikas

Ironically, a team of American fire fighters from California has been here recently studying the Australian example. They seem to have concluded that the spirit of volunteerism which makes the Australian policy of ‘fight or flee’ an option  is missing in the U.S.  The policy in California is based on a more authoritarian approach:  get people out whether they like it or not; worry about houses and property later.

I lived in L.A. for seven years, through bush fires, earthquakes and mudslides.  In terms of fatalities, nothing came close to the horror of Black Saturday.  I am not suggesting that my native land does these things better than Australia.  The response to the hurricanes in New Orleans gives the lie to that.  But in this particular case, reliance on peoples’ instincts for survival, mateship, rugged individualism and the myth of the brave Australian battler may have been carried just a little too far.  Fire doesn’t respect rugged individualism or mateship.

In terms of warnings, the most troubling example of late may have been the one that was blatantly ignored right before the devastating earthquake in Italy just a month ago.  The seismologist, Giampaolo Giuliani, drove through the town of L’Aquila in a van with a loudspeaker warning the public about an impending earthquake in March. He was accused of inciting panic and threatened with charges of public mischief.

The city government shut him down and Italy’s Major Risks Committee met in the town on March 31, playing down his disaster prediction, saying it was impossible to predict earthquakes with any accuracy.  The quake hit at 3:32 AM, six kilometers northeast of L’Aquila.  Over 200 people died.  Seismologists from around the world have dismissed the prediction as a fluke, insisting that such detailed predictions are impossible with current data.

But the fact is, he did offer fair warning to the good people of the town and he was roundly rebuked for his efforts.  Did anybody say I’m sorry?

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