Preparing for bushfires a ritual for Australians

Firefighters trying to extinguish a bushfire north of Melbourne on Oct 7.
Firefighters trying to extinguish a bushfire north of Melbourne on Oct 7. PHOTO: EPA

For many residents of Australia, the approach of the summer months involves a well-honed annual drill involving tools ranging from lawnmowers and brooms to hosepipes and garden shears.

These are all vital weapons in the effort to prepare the house for the annual "bushfire season".

Often armed with checklists, home owners in bushfire-prone areas can be seen on weekends cleaning roofs and gutters, preparing water supplies and clearing twigs, shrubs and dead leaves around their homes.

Australia has about 60,000 bushfires a year - a number that is expected to rise as climate change increasingly heats up the continent.

The experience has prompted high levels of vigilance, with phone apps showing the location of nearby fires and state-run public campaigns to urge people to prepare their homes.

BE PREPARED

You soon learn that every second counts, and how much energy it takes when it is that hot to get around the house, pack all your things in the car and get going. You simply need to make sure everything is ready well before a fire starts.

RESIDENT JOAN LAST-KELLY, who nearly lost her home to a bushfire

In some communities, fire services run an annual "Bushfire Awareness Day". During such an event earlier this week in Gelorup in Western Australia, resident Joan Last-Kelly recalled nearly losing her home to a bushfire.

"You soon learn that every second counts, and how much energy it takes when it is that hot to get around the house, pack all your things in the car and get going," she told ABC News. "You simply need to make sure everything is ready well before a fire starts."

Bushfires have wrought a devastating toll in Australia in recent years. The Black Saturday fires in the state of Victoria in 2009 - the worst in the nation's history - killed 173 people, destroyed 2,000 homes and burned 430,000ha of land. Just last week, fires in Victoria burned four houses and more than 3,100ha of bushland.

Another growing focus of damage prevention has involved targeting the causes of individual fires. Studies have found that arson accounts for about 30 per cent to half of all fires. Another third are caused by accidents while only about 6 per cent are due to natural causes.

Experts in Australia have increasingly called for greater efforts to identify and treat arsonists, particularly juveniles.

An Australian expert on bushfires and arsonists, Dr Paul Read from Monash University, said there were four main groups of young arsonists: those with mental health problems, those who have suffered abuse or neglect and make a "cry for help", those who start fires accidentally while playing, and a final group who are "truly malicious".

"Often, for young people lighting fires, it is an expression of emotion, usually related to anger or revenge and despair," he told The Straits Times.

Research has shown that about half of all arsonists are under the age of 21 and most are male. The annual cost of damage caused by fires started by eight- to 21-year-olds is about A$1.3 billion (S$1.3 billion).

Experts have begun to develop treatment programmes for young people who have committed arson or are at risk. The programmes, run by psychologists and psychiatrists, aim to help them understand and control their behaviour.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2015, with the headline 'Preparing for bushfires a ritual for Australians'. Print Edition | Subscribe