Not ‘if’  – only ‘when’ and ‘where’

The idea of the inevitability of natural hazard events was well and truly reinforced in my mind when visiting Marysville and Kinglake, some days after the tragic fires in Victoria of 7 February 2009. I stood in the middle of Marysville, surveyed the damage and total destruction of the township knowing how many people had perished and asked myself ‘how did we not see this coming?’

Having just driven through the remnants of a tall timbered forest accessed by a single road in and out of a township located close to the top of a ridge, scattered amongst a sea of trees embedded in a landscape that had been drought stressed for 10 years and that had experienced fire weather conditions that went off any recognised scale of measurement, its vulnerability became so obvious yet appeared to be so ignored. I am not suggesting that nothing was done prior to the event, but I am suggesting that as a society we had not done enough.

My reflections of the Canberra fires of January 2003 led me to a similar conclusion. These fires also highlighted the inevitability of severe to catastrophic natural disasters and our inability to truly come to terms with their presence across the Australian landscape. The Brindabella Ranges to the west of Canberra have been sending fire, ignited by natural causes (lightning), to the NSW coast for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years. Whilst it was only 100 years ago that we decided, again in ignorance of the full potential of the hazard, to locate a City at its foothills.

The reality is, if we stop and reflect upon our history, including our indigenous history, we can comfortably draw the conclusion that severe to catastrophic natural hazard events are inevitable in Australia. The only variables are ‘where’ and ‘when’, and on days when the landscape and atmospheric conditions fully manifest, it will not be ‘when’, just ‘where’.

If we explore this notion a little further, we come to find that whilst ever the right atmospheric and landscape conditions prevail:

  • a severe to catastrophic bushfire will go where ever it wants and burn for as long as it wants whilst ever there is sufficient fuel in its path;
  • a cyclone will go where ever it wants, will generate wind as strong as it wants, and dump as much water as it wants for as long as it wants; and
  • a severe thunderstorm will form wherever it wants, will go wherever it wants, drop as much water as its wants, in a concentrated area of its choosing, and produce winds as strong as it wants.

It is hard for us to hear and accept their inevitability because, in my view, as a nation we do not want them, but unfortunately, they are not for us to choose.

Rethinking how we prepare

Any community in Australia will have a natural hazard profile evidenced by history, observation and science; data telling us that a range of events has occurred, observing that they are happening now, as well as telling us that they will occur again. These events are a result of immense climatic or geological energies involving earth, wind, fire and water, none of which we have absolute control over, but all of which are produced from highly complex natural systems and interactions between the climate, its resultant weather, the landscape, the way we use the land, and the minds that we bring to these events before, during and after.

While the frequencies and intensities of these events vary considerably, all events are part of a continuum within our environment. Predicting when they will reach a maximum potential remains an unknown, but averages of 50, 100 or even 10 000 years are frequently proffered. Nonetheless, at some point in the future when the right causes and conditions arise, major events will manifest, and when they do, we will have no choice but to confront them.

Antecedent conditions leading up to these events (for natural hazards excluding earthquakes) are generally overt, i.e. there is little surprise in their arrival, but considerable complexity in their resultant effects. Climate outlooks, weather forecasts, landscape conditions, land use, and presenting conditions all narrate to us what is broadly about to happen. How this information translates into impact and consequence (immediate and downstream) minutiae is hard to foreshadow, but not impossible.

Basically, these events are inevitable, with varying frequencies and intensities over time and varying impacts, beyond our ability to choose them, reasonably foreseeable in broad terms, infinitely complex and unpredictable in specific terms, and whilst we are unable to choose them, we do get choice in how we prepare for, respond to, and recover from them.

Shifting our thinking to accept inevitability simplifies our approach to the problem. We no longer need to weigh up whether we think a severe to catastrophic event will happen or not. We accept that it will at a time not of our choosing, and we avail ourselves the opportunity to rethink how we will prepare well before they occur.

Looking at the whole problem

We have the opportunity to look at the whole problem … not just the more likely problem. Then methodically, we may work through how to find appropriate solutions. We must open a philosophical doorway to rationally and reasonably consider what an event might look like, and to properly consider not only what we might do when it occurs, but what we might do differently, or perhaps more importantly, we might choose to do nothing at all.

If society as a whole truly accepted the inevitability of the event, then we could have invested our resources more wisely in anticipation of it occurring and therefore could have better prepared ourselves mentally and physically for its eventuality.

But more importantly, by accepting that we do not get to choose these events, we would not have been so emotionally distressed by its impacts, which would have undoubtedly been less if we had prepared our minds for the event and invested up front in all or many of those initiatives.