Experts on Australia’s devastating bushfires

Australia’s worst bushfires on record have left at least 93 people dead and could burn for days or weeks as winds fan fires across southern Victoria.

The Australian Science Media Centre rounded up comment from crisis management and bush fire management experts on the fires, looking at the ecological and social implications of the fires.

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Associate Professor Robert Heath is a psychologist and crisis management expert at the University of South Australia

On bushfire preparedness:

“There has been over 30 years of debate amongst fire experts as to whether people should stay and defend their property or leave early when there is a real that of a bushfire approaching. Personally my feeling is that most people should evacuate in the case of mega fires – i.e. when you have multiple spotting of fires ahead of a large fire front. This is because most people are not psychologically prepared for the noise and heat of a mega fire. This is especially the case when you have children or other vulnerable people that you also have to care for.

The psychology of coping with fire is extremely important. The main difference between a major mega fire and a smaller fire is the heat and the sound which can drive people to distraction, even when they feel psychologically prepared beforehand. As a community we need to work more on psychological preparedness for major fires.

Part of this preparation for staying with your house when a fire is approaching is knowing that you may be on your own for anything from 3 hours to 3 days. You need to make sure that you have things like plenty of drinking water, multiple sets of spare batteries, necessary medicines and provisions that you might need for anything up to 3 days.”

On expectations:

“One important issue we need to address is people’s expectations. There have been very severe fires before, such as the Victorian Gippsland 1898 fire, Black Friday in 1939. However the difference between the current mega fire and these earlier fires is our expectations of rescue teams. The divide seems to have arrived from the 1970s onwards (e.g. Ash Wednesday). The media (including disaster movies and similar television programs) and modern technology has given us the expectation of rapid response times which are unrealistic in extreme bushfire or other extreme situations. In the past people were more self-reliant because they knew they were on their own.

Added to this is our growing population and the continuing movement into bushy suburban areas. More work needs to be done to explain to people that when there are extreme fires, they may well be on their own without help. This may impact on their decision to stay and fight the fire or evacuate.”

On trauma and community support:

“Many people will feel traumatised by this experience. However, it is very important that we don’t tell people how they should be feeling. Telling people that they will be traumatised and depressed is more likely to make them feel traumatised and depressed. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Counselling needs to be made available and publicly advertised but then we need to allow trauma victims to come forward in their own time. It is also important that counsellors are trauma trained because managing trauma is very different to general counselling.

Channelling of good will from the community is very important but should come in the form of money rather than donations of old clothes etc. People tend to be overly generous with their household goods but it is important that whole communities are helped back into normality. Donating food and household goods can, for example, put local businesses under more stress. The most important thing is that money is channelled into effected communities so that local retail and businesses can continue operating.”

On arsonists:

“A number of the fires in Victoria and NSW are suspicious and, based on past statistics, it’s likely that about one in three of the fires was deliberately lit. Interestingly, many people who light fires deliberately are local. They either live in the area or have friends or family members in the area. There are four broad categories of arsonists. Some suffer from a feeling of impotence and light fires to give themselves a sense of being in control. Another group has a psychological attraction to fire and seeing things burn. The third group has a need to be seen as a hero and so tends to light fires to provide opportunities to show heroic traits. The last group likes to build fires in parklands and gullies in urban areas or in buildings and then often stay to watch them burn.”


Professor David Bowman is an expert in forest ecology and bushfire management. He is based at the School of Plant Science, University of Tasmania.

“This is a truly terrible situation.

The fires have been predictable given the extreme drought, heat waves and juxtaposition of people in flammable bush and the experience in other flammable settings especially California.

The Victorian fires are a very serious warning for the extreme vulnerability we here in Tasmania face, this summer and next and indeed until the extreme dry trends cease (which may be effectively never as this has all the indicators of climate change, i.e. the global trends in extreme fire weather). Tasmania is particularly vulnerable given the greater area of forest with very heavy fuels and which have naturally infrequent fire regimes and a lot of folk living right amongst the bush. Most folk have forgotten the disaster of 1967 and what may happen here could be much, much worse given the Victorian experience.”

Mr David Packham has been specialising in bushfire research and meteorology for more than 50 years. He is a Research Fellow in the Climatology Group at the School of Geography & Environmental Science, Monash University

“Disastrous fires have occurred in Australia before. Last Saturday we had the most intense fire weather conditions we have had in forecast history with the exception of cyclone Alby in the late 1970s in Western Australia which, if you believe, was even worse.

Scientifically we understand fire behaviour and for a disaster to occur you have to have 3 things in place.

The first thing you have to have is hot dry windy weather. The weather we had on Saturday was extremely dry – it was spectacularly well forecast by the Bureau of Meteorology who knew it was coming up to 7 days ahead and by 4 days ahead it was certain the conditions were in place for a disaster to occur.

The second thing you must have are ignitions. We have been fortunate that the ignitions on this occasion have not been lighting strikes. This hot dry air does not encourage lightning which is a great help. The ignitions you do get under these conditions are accidental and the odd arson ignition. Under these conditions things that don’t normally start fires will start fires.

The third thing you must have in place to have a fire disaster is high fuel loads. The mismanagement of the south eastern forests of Australia over the last 30 or 40 years by excluding prescribed burning and fuel management has lead to the highest fuel concentrations we have ever had in human occupation. The state has never been as dangerous as what it is now and this has been quite obvious for some time. There has been a total lack of willingness to instigate a proper fuel reduction management program based on the skills and understanding of indigenous people who after all for tens of thousands of years were the stewards of our environment. We have thumbed our noses at what these people did and knew and we just can’t keep on doing it.”

Professor Beverley Raphael, heads a specialist research unit which tackles the mental health issues associated with disasters, terrorism and other adversity at the University of Western Sydney’s School of Medicine:

“The psychological impact from this bushfire emergency is enormous – it’s a time of shock, disbelief and immense grief as people begin to comprehend the size and scale of the tragedy. Our thoughts and sympathies go out to all those who have lost loved ones at this very sad time and all those that have been affected in many other ways.

Bushfires bring devastation on a grand scale – loss of life, loss of homes, loss of personal possessions and loss of whole communities; all the things that are most meaningful in people’s lives. In addition, these losses, injuries and other traumatic experiences from the bushfires have occurred on top of the severe impact of the recent heatwaves, the drought and other financial stresses.

We also need to think about the heartbreak of the firefighters, emergency services personnel and volunteers who are fighting so hard to protect lives and property, and providing shelter and support to those affected by the fires. They will be feeling their own sense of grief and distress in the face of such a massive natural disaster.

For many in the community, this will also stir up feelings from the Ash Wednesday devastation and trigger reminders on a personal level – often bringing back memories, sadness, anger and distress over past traumas and losses.

In the immediate term, it’s a time when leaders and communities reach out to each other at both the local level and nationally as a coordinated response to oversee disaster relief and support. While we know individuals and communities have great courage and resilience in the face of such crises, the outreach support and concern of others, as well as practical and emotional assistance, make a huge difference to those dealing with such challenges”

Sandy McFarlane is a psychiatry professor and Head of the Centre for Military& Veterans Health at the University of Adelaide. He is a leading authority on post-traumatic stress disorder and conducted the first studies into the traumatic effects of the Ash Wednesday bushfires. His studies into the impact of the Ash Wednesday bushfires are some of the most cited disaster studies in the world.

On bushfires, plans and motor vehicles: Think about tomorrow today – a rare opportunity for active planning:

“One of the tragedies of this disaster is that it appears many people have died in motor vehicles. The tragedy is that most people completely underestimate the panic that they can experience in what it can be like in an horrific bushfire when it really takes off. The media coverage that has occurred in the last 48 hours is something that everybody who lives in a bushfire zone should contemplate, to see the errors that have been made and to think about if they’ve made a plan and they panic, how are they going to stick to that plan? That’s what people often get wrong.

The other issue is that people that are most at risk as the front passes and having something to protect you from the radiant heat is absolutely critical and the place not to be is in a motor vehicle. It’s interesting to contemplate how we often feel safe in our cars, in the days when people in Australia didn’t have cars, you just wonder whether the same death rate would have occurred in these fires, people would have stayed with their homes and may have been safer because they weren’t given the choice.

On resources for psychological support:

“One of the lessons that we repeatedly learn from disasters is that the time that people need psychological support and counselling is not in the immediate aftermath. What people need in the next few days is attention to their safety, provision for their initial welfare needs and being given an opportunity to save whatever they have.

What is always underestimated is the long tail of effect of these events. These are events that impact on communities for years. Inevitably what occurs is that health resources tend to get withdrawn after about a year. After the Ash Wednesday bush fires we studied the time it took for people to begin to seek help from their GPs for their health related problems, depression and post traumatic stress disorder. The peak is about two years after the event. Initially people believe that they can cope with their distress, that time will get it better, but the evidence is that often it doesn’t and when they come forward wanting help, the specialist services that have been put in place have disappeared. There is a real need for planners not to make that same mistake, that represents a significant risk.

On under-insuring your home:

“Everybody that lives in a bushfire prone house should look at their insurance policies today because many homes cost a lot more to re-build than people have them insured for and people always underestimate the value of the contents of their home. One of the tragedies that will occur after these fires is that many people will find that although they are insured, the insurance won’t cover what they’ve lost.”

Dr Anne Fowler, Australian Veterinary Association spokesperson

Treatment of animal bushfire victims – dogs and cats

“We first assess the extent and depth of burns. For those animals that can be treated, we treat the wounds under anaesthesia then protect them until they start to heal. We also need to use intravenous fluids, pain relief and antibiotics during recovery. This can take from 2 weeks to greater than 4 weeks depending on the severity of the burn.”

Treatment of animal bushfire victims – wildlife

“Wildlife likely to be affected include koalas, ringtail possums and kangaroos. Reptiles and echidna are often only found some days later. Treatment includes assessing for other diseases like Chlamydia in koalas. For those animals that can be treated, we treat the wounds under anaesthesia then protect them until they start to heal. We also need to use intravenous fluids, pain relief and antibiotics during recovery. Starting the animals on suitable food is especially important in their recovery.”

Ross Bradstock is the Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong. His expertise is in fire science, fire ecology, climate change and risk management.

“From what we’ve seen the weather conditions in Melbourne were almost unprecedented on Saturday, probably a record, so it looks as if it’s off the top of the scale. The weather has a huge effect on the intensity of the fires including the rate of spread. Conditions are at least equivalent if not worse than 1939. You couple that with a whole range of other factors, plus some of these fires have broken out very quickly so people have been caught by surprise.

The other disturbing thing is that probably a lot of the deaths are on the roads, in motor vehicles. The authorities have been pushing a policy of trying to encourage people to stay with their property, not to evacuate, especially at the last minute, so it will be interesting to see what the breakdown of fatalities are in terms of whether many people have been killed actually staying with their buildings or not but we just don’t know. But it looks as if there’s a hell of a lot of carnage on the road.

There’s pretty concrete evidence that you’re much safer staying with your building. A lot of these houses actually burnt after the fire front had passed because while they do catch fire, it takes a while for them to burn down, so even if you’re in a house which is on fire in the early stages, you’re actually safer than being outside. But it’s too early to assess things like that; we just don’t have the data.

Many of these towns like Kinglake and Marysville have been burnt out before, it’s a very dangerous environment, the tall forests of Victoria are a pretty dangerous place to live. Under these sorts of conditions it really does make you think very carefully about urban planning.

It might be the sort of conditions we can expect more of in the future under climate change, there’s certainly a fair bit of evidence of that kind around.”

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