Hell on Earth: Australia’s Ferocious Fires Hit Surprisingly Close to Home

When fires raged through southeastern Australia in February 2009, the stunning display of destruction was like to a modern-day hell on Earth. Hundreds of infernos ignited on Saturday, Feb. 7 and spread under torturous weather conditions.

The ferocity of the burn was reminescent of the wildfires in California. More than 340,000 acres in California were burned by fires from Aug. 1 to Sept. 7, 2009. Flames from the Station Fire in unincorporated Los Angeles killed two firefighers and destroyed more than 160 structures in about a week. In another example, then-Lt. Gov. John Garamendi declared a state of emergency in August for the Lockheed Fire — a blaze that prompted the evacuation of approximately 2,400 people in the Santa Cruz Mountains and destroyed nearly 8,000 acres. Those were just two fires among thousands in California in 2009. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, 6,000 fires burned from Jan. 1 to Aug. 29. In 2008, 4,500 burned in the same period.

An interim report produced by the Australian government revealed that no emergency warning signal was used to alert the public and that “other avenues for issuing and raising awareness were not encouraged, such as the use of local sirens or the use of commercial radio and television.”
But in California, many of those communications lessons already have been learned. The Los Angeles Fire Department has received attention for using Twitter for crisis communication in real time. Los Angeles fire personnel used Twitter to help tackle a fire in Griffith Park in May 2007.
Brian Humphrey, a public service officer for the department, read tweets about the fire sent by citizens, some of whom were on the opposite side of the blaze from the firefighters. They tweeted about wind conditions and fire behavior, so Humphrey tweeted back asking them to call him. They did and told him information about the fires that he then passed along to firefighters, which ultimately aided their containment strategy.