California's recent fires were some of the worst the State has ever experienced. At least 42 people lost their lives, 8,400 structures were destroyed and an estimated $1 billion in losses incurred.
Not surprisingly people are beginning to ask who was responsible for this disaster and what could have been done to mitigate its consequences. One example of accusation and recrimination centres on how residents were alerted, or not, to fires in their area.
This CNN article illustrates the complexity of alert systems in California. In summary; some alert systems were used and some were not, possibly for good reason; some alerts required residents to register; some residents were aware of alert systems but many were not, and many were not registered.
It is easy to see how lines of responsibility become blurred. Alerts were available, but should the State have done more to ensure people signed up? Where does State responsibility end and personal responsibility start? There were months of record-high temperatures preceding the fires and the State was very dry, should the community have recognised this and registered for emergency alerts?
It would be premature to make judgements on who or what is to blame. Even if responsibility or blame is attributed, as research by Dr Michael Eburn and Professor Steve Dovers contends, this does not always lead to effective change or resilience to future events.
No doubt there will be some kind of review or inquiry into these fires. Drawing from Australian experience it is unlikely that such a review or inquiry would examine or make recommendations regarding personal responsibility.
Recent, soon to be publicly released, research undertaken by Aither and project partners identified that of 56 major post-event review and inquiries since 2009, totalling over 1,300 recommendations, there were only eight recommendations regarding personal responsibility. In contrast there were 74 recommendations regarding community warnings and communication, the fourth most common recommendation category.
This may suggest there are improvements to be made in how we develop and issue community warnings. However it may also illustrate that our reviews and inquiries often only focus on what individual government departments and agencies can change internally, to systems, processes, regulations and legislation. In one sense this is common-sense; formal inquiries should make recommendations that are clearly within the remit of agency responsibilities and operations. However, there are additional areas of interest that reviews should take into account, including the roles of communities, individuals and business and industry.
Learning lessons from past events, both within our jurisdiction and across others, is important for continuous improvement of emergency management and the achievement of good community outcomes. How we undertake our inquiries is therefore equally important. Given the lack of attention on personal responsibility, it may be time to rethink the questions we ask.
Neither Curzon nor her parents received any type of warning or alert ahead of the fire, she said, but she signed up for the county's Nixle alerts Monday morning after her roommate told her about them. "I didn't even know it existed before the fire happened," she said.