Residents of the seaside town of Lake Conjola, in NSW, have told ABC 730 that they did not receive warnings when a fire swept through the town on New Years eve, killing 3 people, and destroying 39 homes. However there were at least 12 strong warnings…so what went wrong? Did the warning system fail?

The Royal Commission into Bushfires is not looking at the warning system.

(Please have a look at the item before reading this post)

I remain sympathetic towards the people of the region who lost loved ones, their environment and the fires blackened their memories.They are still recovering from trauma.

730 is not a Royal Commission or police enquiry, and while Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop of the ABC Investigation team is a highly competent reporter, for whom facts and context matter, there might be gaps in his knowledge.

However it is possible to reflect on the claims made in the program by the residents, and perhaps we can start to learn before the next fire season?

The program opened with a voice over which sounded like a commercial radio news program

“The RFS says there will be dangerous conditions for the south coast right s across today and that will put lives and homes in danger.”

That news content is a clear warning.

The program then went to describe a near by fire which had been burning for days:

The main fire was running with a head of steam.”

Thye report pointed to a ”last minute” backburn outside the town. It showed what appear to be mobile phone images of fire crews working at night in the bush:

”Ian Stewart took photos late into the night.”

That’s another warning. People in the area knew that an attempt to put in a fire break late at night was occurring, and from the weather forecast, they knew conditions were torrid.

On New Years eve the town was engulfed in flames. Then a heartbreaking image filmed by Michelle Morales, as looked towards where her partner was presumed to be trying to save his property. Michelle, the report said:

“Watched the fire racing in.”

730 said the first RFS emergency warnings were delivered at 1028 am.

Dee Vietch told 730: “We didnt get any warnings whatsoever. Not one message. We didn’t have time to get the animals out of the cages.

At the end of the report former ACT Emergency Services Commissioner Peter Dunn, one of the residents who were affected, says he tried in vain to warn the government that a horror fire season was coming.

“What I should have done was spend my time warning the communities.”

In December The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC issued its highly reputable bushfire season outlook and the region included the south coast of NSW.

The Bureau of Meteorology puts out quarterly drought bulletins, monthly rainfall bulletins and daily weather bulletins. Together they described a situation similar to that which faced Victoria on Black Saturday in 2009.

The NSW RFS had been warning people that the fire conditions were horrific. Homes had been burning along the coast from Qld since August.

And when the fires came people filmed as fire crews approached them; filmed as massive smoke plumes rose from behind an adjacent hill.

These are environmental warnings, and they were ignored. It’s at this point we need to agree there were official warnings, unofficial warnings and environmental warnings (smoke, heat, back burning) all of which together form the warning system – which I outline in my book: “The Principles of Effective Warnings

Any warning which is ignored is by definition, not effective. The bushfire warning system needs to be reviewed but is not being considered as part of the national Bushfire Royal Commission.

The key questions which arise from the principles of emergency warnings are:

  • Why didn’t the community recognise these warnings?
  • Why did the official warnings not change the behaviour of those who were trapped?
  • Was th warning system integrated into a person’s life.
  • What is it about the warning system which creates an expectation that people will receive information in time to allow them to make effective decisions?
  • What needs to be changed so that the warning system teaches people to be able to respond effectively when they don’t get a warning?
  • Did the warning system support vulnerable people?