Opinion

Fire, floods and storms – are we ready for a 2015–2016 summer of wild weather?

Associate Prof Dale Dominey-Howes looks at the importance of planning this extreme weather season

Australia appears to be a dangerous place to live. Australia is at risk from events we call natural hazards and the disasters they may cause. Across the country in the last few years, significant events have caused a huge loss of life to people and wild and farm animals and destroyed vast amounts of infrastructure and land.

The most commonly recurring disasters in Australia (and across the world in fact) are those associated with extreme weather and climate – events we call hydro-meteorological – such as the Millennium Drought, the Black Saturday Victorian bushfires, Cyclone Larry, the Brisbane floods and the NSW Blue Mountains bushfires. Worryingly, with the effects of climate change predicted to impact Australia to a greater extent throughout the 21st century, both the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are forecast to change – sometimes increasing and other times decreasing. Reports from the Climate Council are a good source of information of the future effects of climate change in Australia.

The occurrence of a discrete, potentially hazardous event does not need to result in a disaster. Disasters occur because of the intersection of hazard with exposed people and assets that are vulnerable to the hazard. Disasters are characterised by a lack of resilience and poor capacity to cope and respond. Without vulnerability there can be no disaster. For me, disasters are a social construct and disasters are about people. I make no apologies for taking such an anthropocentric view. Regardless of whether you agree with this proposition or not, the simple fact is that events labeled as ‘disasters’ are on the rise, as are the human and economic losses (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: The human and economic costs of disasters 2005 – 2014 (Source: UN ISDR via Flickr)

Preparation for and management of [natural] disasters in Australia is a complicated affair. Responsibility is delegated to each of the States and Territories. In each State and Territory, different agencies are mandated with responsibility for different types of disaster. For example, in NSW, the State Emergency Service has the responsibility for floods, storms and tsunamis. In contrast, The Rural Fire Service supports preparedness for and response to bushfires.

It is critical to understand that these emergency service agencies do the best they can with the resources available to them but responsibility for preparedness and response is actually a shared responsibility between these agencies and us as members of the community (together with the private sector and others). The National Strategy for Disaster Resilience details this concept – something that social research has shown is not widely understood by many members of the general public.

So, given that wild weather leading to floods, storms and fires is a natural part of Australia’s landscape and history and that we know human’s are messing up the climate which will make things more complicated, what can we do to prepare for a forthcoming summer of wild weather? Such wild weather would be normal but this summer we are facing what has been dubbed ‘the Godzilla El Nino’.

For a start every household, family and business should know the hazards their location is affected by. Local Council and the emergency service organisations have many easily available resources on their web sites to help you know the hazard. Once you know what hazards can affect your location you can start planning and become increasingly prepared.

Plan. Plan. Plan. Planning is the key. Don’t be overwhelmed by the disaster planning process though. Every little step you take moves you along a path towards better family, household and business preparedness. For example, the Rural Fire Service has great advice on preparing your property step-by-step to make it more fire proof. Check out details here.

The State Emergency Service has excellent ‘Community Safe’ resources packs available here. This even includes putting together a basic household emergency kit (Figure 2).
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Figure 2: Thanks to the State Emergency Service, putting a household emergency kit together is easy, can involve the whole family and can be fun! (Source: NSW SES)
Given we can reasonably expect a roller coaster ride of a summer of wild weather, start planning now so you do not end up being counted in the disaster statistics!

 

Dale Dominey-Howes
Asia – Pacific Natural Hazards and Disaster Risk Research Group, School of Geosciences

Image: HighExposure ‘Bushfire’ via Flickr Commons