Bushfire deaths in Australia, 2010-2020

Lucinda Coates, Risk Frontiers

Targeting policy interventions to enhance public safety is critical. Here we interrogate PerilAUS, Risk Frontiers database of natural hazard occurences in Australia, to analyze bushfire deaths occurring since those of the 2009 Black Saturday fires.

This data was based mainly on articles from the news media – a rich source of details and circumstances around such fatalities – and represents lower bound estimates. The financial year is utilised for bushfire season totals. Increases in population have been normalised utilising fatality rates, which look at the overall number of deaths for a given group of people (say, males, or persons aged 30-34) against the population of that group. We have measured this in terms of deaths per 100,000 (background) population.

At least 65 deaths due to bushfires have occurred in Australia from FY 2010 to FY 2020 (Table 1). Just over half of the deaths (n=35; 54%) occurred during FY 2020 (note: the current fire season is far from over, especially for the southern states of Australia).

The most common age range of those killed in bushfires was 60-64 years (n=12; 18%), followed by 65-69 years (n=8; 12%). No deaths occurred below the age range of 15-19. The normalised age ranges shows the 60-64 to 75-79 age groups being overrepresented. Again, the 60-64 age group showed the highest value (death rate 0.94 deaths per 100,000 population), followed by age groups 75-79 (0.81), 65-69 (0.73) and 70-74 (0.60).

Table 1: Deaths from bushfires in Australia, FY 2010-2020 as at 29/1/2020

Of the 65 total deaths, 54 (83%) were male and 11 (17%) female. This relates to death rates of 0.46 deaths per 100,000 population for males and 0.09 for females.

New South Wales is the Australian jurisdiction where most of the deaths (n=33; 51%) occurred. This is followed by Victoria (n=9; 14%) and Western Australia (n=9; 14%) then South Australia (n=8; 12%). Over longer time periods, however, Victoria has had the highest proportion of deaths.

Twelve (18% of) deaths occurred inside a house or other building and 53 (82%) outside. Of those outside, 26 (49%) were in a land vehicle, 22 (42%) were on foot and five (9%) were in an aircraft. Vehicles were related to 33 (45%) of deaths; eight (11% of) deaths were treefall-related. Four deaths were related both to vehicles and to treefall.

The most common causal factor of death was being burnt whilst in vehicles (n=15; 23%). Of these, ten were due to late evacuation and five were due to firefighting (including en route). Thirteen (20%) were burnt in (or near) their home: nine were in the house, undertaking no/ little action or being too late to evacuate and four were firefighting. Eleven deaths (17%) were due to a cardiac event and of those ten known, all were firefighting: five saving their own properties, two professional firefighters, two informal volunteers (i.e., with RFS or CFA) and one member of the public (i.e., not a brigade member but helping out on someone else’s property). Two of the three fatalities caused by a medical condition exacerbated by the fires were due to asthma caused by bushfire smoke, at some distance from the active fire zone.

In relation to the activity of the decedents immediately prior to death, 30 (46%) were involved in firefighting efforts and another nine (14%) were en route to fight fires. Thirteen (20%) were attempting to evacuate: nine were late evacuations, three were saving their own property and then attempting to evacuate and one, a formal volunteer, was warning neighbours to evacuate. Ten (15%) of the decedents were undertaking no or little activity but were in/ near their home.

The most common reason behind the activity being carried out by the decedent was saving their own property, belongings or animals (n=14; 22%) – either firefighting or evacuating late from firefighting. Eleven (17%) were evacuating late or did not attempt to evacuate – either in car or in house. Thirteen (20%) were formal volunteers involved in firefighting, eleven (17%) were professional firefighters and five were members of the public involved in firefighting.

Figure 1 shows the death rate per 100,000 population for bushfires that have affected Australia since 1900, from PerilAUS. This 110-year record shows no particular trend over time but, rather, episodic severe bushfire seasons against a background of relatively low death rates.

Figure 1: Death rates per 100,000 population from bushfires in Australia, FY 1900-2020

The total of 35 deaths for the 2019/20 fire season, whilst relatively low, is still 35 too many: however, compared to the severity and the widespread extent of the fires, the death toll could have been higher. The PerilAUS record over the last decade shows that particular focus should be given to:

  • professional and volunteer firefighters
  • males aged 60+ trying to save own property, especially those with cardiac conditions
  • males aged 55+ attempting a late evacuation or not leaving home in time
  • males and females aged 55+ and remaining in their house.