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‘Lessons still to learn’ a decade after Black Saturday

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Bushfires as devastating as the 2009 Black Saturday disaster could happen again and people and organisations are “not as prepared as we think we are”, an expert has warned.

On February 7 2009, record temperatures and driving wind – on top of a persistent heatwave and decade-long drought – created devastating bushfire conditions in Victoria.

About 400 fires were recorded across the state, affecting 78 communities, with 173 people killed and 2029 houses destroyed.

Insured losses passed $1 billion – $1.76 billion when normalised to 2017 dollars.

Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre CEO Richard Thornton says a lot was learned from the day and resulting royal commission, but he warns such terrible conditions will arise again and some hazardous practices remain.

“We will see bushfires like this again, and perhaps we are not as prepared as we think we are,” he writes in a blog post. “We know that natural hazards are causing more damage and destruction, both here in Australia, but also abroad, than ever before.

“As populations continue to increase and urban boundaries continue to expand, more people are exposed to risk.

“The policies and settlement patterns of the past are proving inadequate for the challenges of the future, and in many instances are intensifying the exposure to risk.”

He says that while bushfire is a natural and inevitable part of living in Australia, disasters are “mostly human-caused” because of where we choose to live and work.

“We choose these areas – on a ridge with a spectacular view, surrounded by the bush, but with only one road in or out – because we value the location.

“Our planning laws and building codes allow this to happen. Our architects encourage us with bush-inspired designs. The whole system supports life in the hazard zone.

“Why do we think an unprecedented bushfire won’t happen again?

“Drive around the areas that were burned out on Black Saturday. Among the still-recovering bush, what do you see? New houses, right in the footprints of the fires.

“Yes, our building codes have been strengthened based on what was learned in 2009, but we are still building in the same risky locations. Is this wise?

“At the time, Black Saturday conditions were beyond the imagination of many. But they will happen again, as they have happened in the past.”