Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 12, 2009

Learning lessons here and down under

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,State and Local HLS — by Philip J. Palin on May 12, 2009

California firefighters got a big assist from low winds and ocean mist on Saturday and Sunday. Monday night was another calm one.  The Jesusita fire is at least 80 percent contained with no visible flames.  Low humidity and the prospect of evening winds means the threat continues.

Early reports indicate that the fire may have been ignited by “a power tool being used to clear brush,” according to FOX NEWS.  “The fire has cost $9 million to fight, injured 28 firefighters, destroyed 77 homes, damaged 22 others and forced the evacuation of approximately 30,000 people to safer ground. By early Monday, only about 370 people remained out of 145 homes. Over the weekend, fire officials had praised residents for aggressively cutting back brush. ‘More homes would have burned had they not done their defensible space work,’ Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin said.”

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that, “Joe Waterman, an incident commander with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, did not say what type of tool was used but added: ‘It’s looking like this was not an act of nature.’ He said investigators have placed the fire’s origin near the Jesusita Trail, which leads into the Santa Ynez Mountains.”

This is why man-made disasters are helpfully categorized as either accidential or intentional.

On Monday in Australia  the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission began public hearings.  The first day focused on coordination of information within the incident command center and whether or not information was shared in a timely and sufficient way with the public.  After Tuesday’s hearings several media reports echo this ABC report, “The Royal Commission into Victoria’s bushfires has heard more evidence that the warnings given to some communities were inadequate or even nonexistent.”

The early February wildfire (bushfire in Aussie) in Southern Australia killed 179.  The hearings are webcast in real-time.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 12, 2009 @ 8:18 am

Warning, notification and alerting are all highly technical terms of art and a different research base is in existence for all. Note the issuance of a National Warning Strategy by a Presidential Commission several years back that is almost totally ignored. Not a bad report in fact.

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 12, 2009 @ 10:11 am

Warnings and advice in the Australian context are complicated by the fact that fire agencies there have promoted what they call a “stay and defend or leave early” policy. This means individuals must factor their preparedness into situation assessments when making decisions about whether to stay or go.

Past experience may encourage misplaced confidence in one’s ability to deal with a fire under novel or extreme conditions like those accompanying the recent event. People (including experts) have a difficult time assessing some of the very complex interactions that lead to devastating effects in wildfires even if they understand the variables themselves quite well.

I suspect that the Royal Commission will conclude that problems with the stay or go policy are just as significant, if not more so, than issues surrounding warnings and notifications because they affect anticipation and expectations underlying the interpretation of any warning or notification message.

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