Saving homes, saving lives

Bushfires are a natural part of the environment. They have a positive impact on many ecosystems, with plants having evolved to regenerate and reproduce around fire events. However, bushfires can also destroy homes and result in the loss of life. As human population density increases and extreme fire weather becomes more frequent, these threats will intensify in the future.

Dr Geoff Cary, who leads an international consortium of bushfire computer modellers, is looking at the impacts of fire around the world. Cary says that whilst studies show that weather conditions play the greatest role in the spread of fire, land management techniques, such as vegetation thinning and prescribed burning to reduce bushfire fuel loads, have the ability to save both homes and lives.

“Using computer fire simulations we’ve shown that the extent of bushfires adjacent to human populations can be reduced with targeted land management. We found that the most effective way to do this is by reducing bushfire fuel loads at the edge of fire prone areas, which is often where houses are built,” explains Cary.

These findings are reinforced by the research of Dr Phil Gibbons. Gibbons and his team are studying how different land management practices provided varying levels of protection to homes during the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. “The Black Saturday bushfires were the most devastating fires in Australia’s history, destroying 2133 homes and resulting in 173 deaths.”

Gibbons’ team compared detailed before-and-after satellite images of more than 500 homes affected by the Black Saturday bushfires, a third of which were destroyed. “We found that clearing trees and shrubs within 40 metres of houses was the most effective form of fuel reduction to save homes,” Gibbons explained. “This was more than twice as effective as prescribed burning.”

Cary and Gibbons’ research has had immediate impact in government policy with the Victorian Premier stating that the findings would be considered for incorporation into future policy. “More than 70 per cent of the people who died in the Black Saturday bushfires died within or around their home,” Cary noted. “If we can develop policy that saves homes, we will be saving lives.”