WHEN Todd Deary gives adviceon bushfires, he does it with an insight more unique and terrifying than most.
The Victorian highway patrol officer wasthe first on the scene of a massive Black Saturday blaze that went on to claim onelife, destroy 58 homes and scorch 341 hectares west of Bendigo.
“As fast as I was driving, thefire was travelling across the top of the trees,” he recalled this month.
“I remember thinking to myselfit actually looks like a Mexican wave at the MCG, because it was travelling thatquickly.”
Three years have passed and Australia facesanother potentially dangerous fire season. The leading seniorconstable said the lessons of February 7, 2009 were still current.
“There’s probably a few thingsI won’t forget, number one (being) how powerful a bushfire can be and howquickly it can travel and how you don’t have to be that close to it to beburnt,” Leading Sen-Constable Deary said.
“As far as the human side of it goes, I canremember how stressed people can get very quickly and how their logical thoughtpatterns just go straight out the door. When people are panicking and thinktheir life might be in danger, they don’t make great decisions sometimes.”
Fire authorities are againpreaching a similar message: prepareearly and prepare well.
The deputy chief officer ofVictoria’s Country Fire Authority, Alan Ellis, said this season would likelysee more fires than inthe 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 didin drought years but, nevertheless, the weather pattern means we will still havesevere days in the cycles of weather,” he said.
“Given the fact this south-east corner of Australia isone of the most fire-prone areas in the world, regardless of the year, there isalways the potential for one bad day of extreme weather and dry fuel to bringon a major fire. So people, regardless of the weather or predictions, need tobe prepared.
“It only takes a couple of days of hot, dry, windyweather for conditions to turn pretty quickly.”
The CFA cannot guarantee it will be available to rescueresidents in a major fire.
“The reality is we’ll have information and warnings outon 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 thepath of a bushfire,” he said.
“We have an obligation to protect people but the flipsideof our contract with the public is that the public has a responsibility to lookafter themselves by preparing for summer and remaining informed throughoutthose days where there is a high or extreme fire danger.”
Meanwhile, firefighters are warning people to verifyinformation on social media to make sure they don’t make wrong decisions duringa bushfire.
Mr Ellis said social networking sites like Facebook andTwitter would be abuzz should large, life-threatening blazes flare over summer.
Social media was widely used during Cyclone Yasi and thedevastating Queensland floods in 2011. It was also used following the 2009Black Saturday disaster.
But the social media landscape has changed dramaticallyin the four years since and its impact during a major bushfire emergency is yetto be tested.
Mr Ellis said the CFA would have a strong online presenceduring emergencies to ensure residents could verify the accuracy of informationcirculating on Facebook or Twitter.
“We can never really say social media is solely a help ora hindrance (because) it depends on the circumstances,” Mr Ellis said.
“Social media can inform people… that’s a good thing, butit can also inform with the wrong information so we would hope our own presencewithin the social media sphere will prove to be that point of truth, if youlike.”
A CFA Twitter account that carries officialemergency warnings, incident updates and media releases has more than 8000followers. Its Facebook pagehas more than 100,000 ‘likes’.
Emergency services in other Australian states have alsoembraced social media as a tool to reach thousands.
A University of Western Sydney study into the use ofsocial media during natural disasters recently found it performed a valuablerole inco-ordinating official information, helped isolated people accessassistance and provided ‘psychological first aid’.