Article | CSIRO: Understanding Loss of Life in Wildfires

By: Francisca Yunis Richter, based on the publication “Understanding Loss of Life in Wildfires”, content made by Raphaele Blanchi et al, for the “Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation” (CSIRO), published on December 1st, year 2012.

The development and analysis of a dataset comprising wildfire-related fatalities in Australia between 1901 and 2011 are described in this report. Over this time, 825 known fatalities of civilians and firefighters have been linked to 260 fires. Here you can access the full publication: https://www.csiro.au/en/research/natural-disasters/bushfires/Life-loss-database

Published on August 31, 2022

The challenge | Understanding the environmental circumstances that lead to loss of life in wildfires

People’s awareness, readiness, responses, and decision-making in communities at risk from wildfires are influenced by warning systems. The McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index serves as the foundation for Australia’s current Fire Danger Rating System (FFDI), which links the large-scale weather conditions to the anticipated fire behavior and pace of spread in common fuel types in eastern Australia. Its use has been expanded to include a considerably wider range of applications, including community alerts, even though it was initially created to provide information on fire suppression actions (Blanchi et al, 2012).

Risk communication, education, and warnings should be significantly improved, according to the 2009 Victorian wildfire Royal Commission. As a result of the recommendations, the fire danger rating system was reviewed and the “National Framework for Scaled Advice and Warnings to the Community” was created. As a result of the deployment of this new warning framework, the National Fire Danger Rating system underwent a thorough study. Although studies on the behavior of fatalities during wildfires have been conducted, the evaluation method in this research, revealed the need to enhance our comprehension of the environmental factors that contribute to life loss in wildfires (Blanchi et al, 2012).

“Between 1901 and 2011 there have been 260 wildfires in Australia associated with a total of 825 known civilian and firefighter fatalities. We used data on wildfire-related life loss over this period to develop the Life Loss database. This database is the most comprehensive data set of its kind, linking information about loss of life in wildfires with environmental factors including: Location, fire weather (FFDI), proximity to fuel, activity and decision making (Blanchi et al, 2012)

Source: The Fire Danger Rating (FDR) system in Australia, CSIRO.
Source: Accumulated FFDI percentages for spring 2019, Bureau of Meteorology

Fuel and fire weather

According to the database analysis of this investigation, there is a clear correlation between proximity to fuel and the likelihood of dying in wildfires: more than 75% of all fatalities were within 30 meters of a forest, and 50% happened on days with an FFDI of 100 or higher. Numerous wildfires, that have occurred under extremely severe meteorological conditions, accounted for the majority of civilian fatalities (Blanchi et al, 2012). 

Location, activity and decision making

Over 75% of the fatalities in wildfires that occurred in weather with an FFDI value higher than 100, happened inside structures. These are linked to fatalities that occur when people seek shelter, usually in their place of home. 41% of the fatalities that happened within a building, were sheltered in rooms with poor outside sight (mainly bathrooms). More people are discovered outside defending their properties when the FFDI is lower (Blanchi et al, 2012). 

“The better understanding of the location of fatalities within structures raises several questions in relation to egress, sheltering and the rate of loss of tenability of houses” (Blanchi et al, 2012). 

The Results | Safer Wildfire Strategies

The national “Prepare. Act. Survive.” campaign, adopted in the wake of the 2009 Victorian wildfires, emphasizes the need for thorough preparation and the safer option of evacuating early. The strategy emphasizes the need for action based on the predicted daily fire danger rating, the need for contingency planning, and the importance of alternative options in the event that the fire or personal circumstances limit planned preparations and activities. This technique asks locals to assess the risk of a wildfire and choose the best course of action, but it is only successful if locals are fully aware of the risks they are taking and the effects of their choices and actions (Blanchi et al, 2012). 

This research will support the development of policies, initiatives, and recommendations that will improve community safety during wildfires, as well as better public warnings and information dissemination.

References

Blanchi, R., Leonard, J., Haynes, K., Opie, K., James, M., Kilinc, M., de Oliveira, F. and van den Honert, R. (2012). Life and house loss database description and analysis: final report. (online) Publications.csiro.au. Available at: https://publications.csiro.au/rpr/pub?pid=csiro:EP129645 (Accessed 6 October 2022).

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), n.d. Understanding loss of life in bushfires – CSIRO. (online) Available at: https://www.csiro.au/en/research/natural-disasters/bushfires/Life-loss-database (Accessed 6 October 2022).

This is default text for notification bar