A message from the Emergency Management Commissioner about preparing for fires

15 November 2019

As I reflect on the situation in NSW and QLD, my thoughts are very much with the firefighters, emergency services and in particular, the communities impacted by fires in those states.

While fires in NSW, QLD and Victoria at this time of year is not a new phenomenon, the scale of the fires we are currently experiencing is devastating. It is difficult for many of us to understand the depth of feeling and impact on those who lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods, who tried to help and were overwhelmed, who worked tirelessly to support communities and our colleagues. However, it is important for us to look after ourselves and each other and know where to find support, should we need it.

In Victoria, fire has always been part of our history and will be part of our future. If we go back to 1932, 1939, 1983 and of course the 2009 Victorian bushfires, Victorians have lived and worked with fire and that will not change.

We have come a long way since 2009, but it is fair that the community is asking what has changed since then.

Apart from the 67 recommendations which led to significant changes, the overwhelming legacy of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was embedding a community-centred focus in all activities undertaken by our emergency services.

The Victorian emergency management sector and the community has continued to learn and improve, through fires, flood and other emergencies because we have had to, and because this is our reality. 

We know that Victoria has and will again experience potentially destructive bushfires in the future. Each summer we brace for the hot and dry period. This is our difficult reality and one that Victorians have again been reminded of with the ongoing fires in NSW and QLD.

For Victoria, the outlook suggests that the east of our state, extending to the Great Dividing Range will again be a focus for us, as these areas are now experiencing their third consecutive year of rainfall deficit. It’s a similar story right across the east coast of QLD and NSW. 

We know that summer will be a challenge for us if there is no significant rain through forested regions. Under these conditions, if a fire starts, it could be difficult to control. 

However, there is differing risk across Victoria. Some parts of Victoria have had good rainfall and this can lead to complacency. The reality is, we cannot afford to become complacent in any part of the state. The impact of rainfall can disappear quickly under hot and dry conditions. 

While we as an emergency management sector are better prepared than ever before, we will always rely on the community to do their part as community safety is a shared responsibility. Last fire season in Victoria was our hottest summer on record and hottest January on record. There were more frequent hot days leading to 74 heat health alerts, the highest number on record. We saw hotter, drier and more intense fire behaviour. We saw fires in Gippsland as early as August and as late as March. In fact, we had more fires in March this year than we had in January or February.

Those numbers stand up on their own. But what’s important to me is what we are doing to keep our communities safe, and what communities themselves are doing. 

We can’t control the weather, however we can control our preparedness.

Each year emergency management agencies actively prepare for the fire season ahead, but it’s also important the community understands their own risk and is actively preparing also. The reality is we won’t have a fire truck at everyone’s house this summer because we just don’t have enough to go around.

The other critical piece is about information. Good information will always lead to good decisions. Knowing how to stay informed before and during emergencies is critical to staying safe. 

Victorian agencies work with local communities throughout the year, but particularly in the lead up to the summer fire season, on preparedness. The reality is the risk is not just on public land, it’s also on private land and that’s why bushfire preparedness is truly a shared responsibility.

Victoria’s new fire campaign this year drives home the message about communities needing to plan and prepare. We remain absolutely committed to ensuring we do everything possible to keep Victorians safe, working together and with our communities.

It’s the harsh reality that we too in Victoria, will likely lose houses. Again, if we go back to our last fire season, firefighters, trucks and aircraft saved hundreds of houses, but we still lost 35 homes. We in the emergency management sector must work with the community to do everything we can to save lives.

I’ve seen first hand the strength and the commitment of all our people and their unwavering commitment to keeping us all safe. I have every confidence that our people will pull together and fight for their communities and alongside them. My question to the community is: are you prepared? 

**First published in the Australian Financial Review on 15 November 2019**