WHEN Todd Deary gives advice on bushfires, he does it with an insight more unique and terrifying than most.
The Victorian highway patrol officer was the first on the scene of a massive Black Saturday blaze that went on to claim one life, destroy 58 homes and scorch 341 hectares west of Bendigo.
“As fast as I was driving, the fire was travelling across the top of the trees,” he recalled this month.
“I remember thinking to myself it actually looks like a Mexican wave at the MCG, because it was travelling that quickly.”
Three years have passed and Australia faces another potentially dangerous fire season. The leading senior constable said the lessons of February 7, 2009 were still current.
“There’s probably a few things I won’t forget, number one (being) how powerful a bushfire can be and how quickly it can travel and how you don’t have to be that close to it to be burnt,” Leading Sen-Constable Deary said.
“As far as the human side of it goes, I can remember how stressed people can get very quickly and how their logical thought patterns just go straight out the door. When people are panicking and think their life might be in danger, they don’t make great decisions sometimes.”
Fire authorities are again preaching a similar message: prepare early and prepare well.
The deputy chief officer of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority, Alan Ellis, said this season would likely see more fires than in the past two years, which have been wetter than usual. Grass fires loom as a serious threat.
“We’re probably not facing the extreme levels like we did in drought years but, nevertheless, the weather pattern means we will still have severe days in the cycles of weather,” he said.
“Given the fact this south-east corner of Australia is one of the most fire-prone areas in the world, regardless of the year, there is always the potential for one bad day of extreme weather and dry fuel to bring on a major fire. So people, regardless of the weather or predictions, need to be prepared.
“It only takes a couple of days of hot, dry, windy weather for conditions to turn pretty quickly.”
The CFA cannot guarantee it will be available to rescue residents in a major fire.
“The reality is we’ll have information and warnings out on the day to let people know what’s going on, we’ll have fire-suppression activities, but we cannot guarantee asset protection for every house which may be in the path of a bushfire,” he said.
“We have an obligation to protect people but the flipside of our contract with the public is that the public has a responsibility to look after themselves by preparing for summer and remaining informed throughout those days where there is a high or extreme fire danger.”
Meanwhile, firefighters are warning people to verify information on social media to make sure they don’t make wrong decisions during a bushfire.
Mr Ellis said social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter would be abuzz should large, life-threatening blazes flare over summer.
Social media was widely used during Cyclone Yasi and the devastating Queensland floods in 2011. It was also used following the 2009 Black Saturday disaster.
But the social media landscape has changed dramatically in the four years since and its impact during a major bushfire emergency is yet to be tested.
Mr Ellis said the CFA would have a strong online presence during emergencies to ensure residents could verify the accuracy of information circulating on Facebook or Twitter.
“We can never really say social media is solely a help or a hindrance (because) it depends on the circumstances,” Mr Ellis said.
“Social media can inform people… that’s a good thing, but it can also inform with the wrong information so we would hope our own presence within the social media sphere will prove to be that point of truth, if you like.”
Emergency services in other Australian states have also embraced social media as a tool to reach thousands.
A University of Western Sydney study into the use of social media during natural disasters recently found it performed a valuable role in co-ordinating official information, helped isolated people access assistance and provided ‘psychological first aid’.
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