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Influence of Location, Population, and Climate on Building Damage and Fatalities due to Australian Bushfire: 1925–2009

Ryan P. CromptonRisk Frontiers, Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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K. John McAneneyRisk Frontiers, Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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Keping ChenRisk Frontiers, Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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Roger A. Pielke Jr.Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado

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Katharine HaynesRisk Frontiers, Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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Abstract

This study reevaluates the history of building damage and loss of life due to bushfire (wildfire) in Australia since 1925 in light of the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria in which 173 people lost their lives and 2298 homes were destroyed along with many other structures. Historical records are normalized to estimate building damage and fatalities had events occurred under the societal conditions of 2008/09. There are relationships between normalized building damage and the El Niño–Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean dipole phenomena, but there is no discernable evidence that the normalized data are being influenced by climatic change due to the emission of greenhouse gases. The 2009 Black Saturday fires rank second in terms of normalized fatalities and fourth in terms of normalized building damage. The public safety concern is that, of the 10 years with the highest normalized building damage, the 2008/09 bushfire season ranks third, behind the 1925/26 and 1938/39 seasons, in terms of the ratio of normalized fatalities to building damage. A feature of the building damage in the 2009 Black Saturday fires in some of the most affected towns—Marysville and Kinglake—is the large proportion of buildings destroyed either within bushland or at very small distances from it (<10 m). Land use planning policies in bushfire-prone parts of this country that allow such development increase the risk that bushfires pose to the public and the built environment.

Corresponding author address: Ryan P. Crompton, Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University, NSW, 2109, Australia. Email: ryan.crompton@mq.edu.au

Abstract

This study reevaluates the history of building damage and loss of life due to bushfire (wildfire) in Australia since 1925 in light of the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria in which 173 people lost their lives and 2298 homes were destroyed along with many other structures. Historical records are normalized to estimate building damage and fatalities had events occurred under the societal conditions of 2008/09. There are relationships between normalized building damage and the El Niño–Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean dipole phenomena, but there is no discernable evidence that the normalized data are being influenced by climatic change due to the emission of greenhouse gases. The 2009 Black Saturday fires rank second in terms of normalized fatalities and fourth in terms of normalized building damage. The public safety concern is that, of the 10 years with the highest normalized building damage, the 2008/09 bushfire season ranks third, behind the 1925/26 and 1938/39 seasons, in terms of the ratio of normalized fatalities to building damage. A feature of the building damage in the 2009 Black Saturday fires in some of the most affected towns—Marysville and Kinglake—is the large proportion of buildings destroyed either within bushland or at very small distances from it (<10 m). Land use planning policies in bushfire-prone parts of this country that allow such development increase the risk that bushfires pose to the public and the built environment.

Corresponding author address: Ryan P. Crompton, Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University, NSW, 2109, Australia. Email: ryan.crompton@mq.edu.au

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