This year, California and Australia have experienced major wildfires as a result of similar conditions — extremely dry weather, unusually high temperatures and strong winds.
But the two fire-prone regions have major disparities in how well they prepare their residents.
In many ways, Australia is far ahead of the United States when it comes to warning its population about bush fires, and this may be playing a role in keeping the death toll there relatively low — at six, so far — considering more than 1.01 million hectares have burned and more than 400 structures have been lost.
In an era of increasingly fierce and fast-spreading blazes, effective warnings are more important than ever. Australia has a revamped wildfire warning system, and it is being showcased this month as fires erupt in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia.
Like severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings issued by the US National Weather Service, Australia's warning messages indicate where a fire is moving and which communities are in its path. The warnings include evacuation and survival instructions.
"Residents are heeding the warnings of our emergency services and they are getting out in advance," said Richard Thornton, chief executive of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre in Melbourne. The warnings "are now more nuanced, more targeted, and better-timed" and have been tested so "they are better understood, and those who receive them understand the actions they need to take".
AUSTRALIA'S WARNING system took shape soon after the February 2009 Black Saturday fires that killed 173 people in Victoria. These were a new, more ferocious kind of fire caused by a combination of factors including a warming climate and more severe fire weather (higher temperatures and drier, more explosive fuels), along with sprawling development. It challenged decades of experience with and research about Australian bush fires.
"We thought we understood how to deal with bush fire, but Black Saturday showed there was still so much we did not know," Thornton said.
Many people had been caught by surprise, waiting for an official warning, and were unaware of a fire's location, or overwhelmed by its speed, intensity and duration.
Less than 18 months after that disaster, a royal commission finished its investigation of the circumstances surrounding each fatality and issued a four-volume report, with 67 recommendations.
They included a new emphasis on warnings: Fire agencies needed to clearly communicate a fire's location, predicted arrival time, and what actions those in its path should take.
Another top priority was a revision to Australia's bush fire safety policy — known as Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early, also called Stay or Go — established after the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires that killed 75 in Victoria and South Australia.
The policy is based on the principle that a well-prepared and well-defended home can be a safe haven during a wildfire. While this may be true during less severe fires, the commission found that during the worst conditions, the best advice is to leave before a fire threatens.
DRY, SHIFTING winds and skyrocketing temperatures in and around Melbourne, which hit a record 46C, helped fuel the Black Saturday fires. But the area's warming and drying climate set the stage for the disaster. The lead-up included the warmest decade (1999-2009) in 154 years of record-keeping, a historic 12-year drought and a record-breaking heat wave at the end of January 2009.
Conditions were so extreme a new category — Catastrophic, or Code Red in Victoria — was added to the country's Fire Danger Rating, a measure of how difficult fires will be to control, based on wind speed, humidity, temperature and vegetation dryness.
"Australian fire agencies advise residents to have a bush fire plan and to leave early, well ahead of a fire occurring on high bush-fire risk days," said Amanda Leck, executive director of the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience. "We further advise that under catastrophic fire conditions, it is not possible for residents to defend their homes and that they should leave the area well before a fire starts."
IN SEPTEMBER 2009, a national agreement established a new framework for bush fire warnings, linked to the Fire Danger Rating.
There are three levels of warnings.
An Advice level is issued for fires that don't yet pose a threat but require close monitoring; a Watch and Act notice means a fire is spreading and residents should prepare to leave or leave immediately.
An Emergency Warning — the highest alert — warns residents to leave immediately. If the fire front is imminent, a notice will state it's "too late to leave" and provide instructions for survival.
Thornton believes the improved warnings saved lives this month during "the worst conditions that have been faced in New South Wales".
CONTRAST AUSTRALIA'S approach with that of California, where evacuation orders are issued by local law enforcement and different counties use different platforms to disseminate wildfire information.
"The system works if you have enough time," said Tom Cova, a wildfire evacuation expert and professor of geography at the University of Utah.
But the deadly blazes in 2017 Tubbs Fire in wine country and the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise reached communities in under two hours, and many were not aware of the danger, or what to do, until it was too late.
A more centralised system — involving coordinated social media, weather forecasters and relevant agencies — like the one in Australia, could allow the public to access fire information in real time.
Australians' wake-up call came more than 10 years ago. Ultimately, the success or failure of any warning system, including Australia's, will be judged by its ability to cope with quickly cascading events.
"How much time did you have? That is the key question," Cova said.