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FEBRUARY 10, 2009 2:29AM

More from Victoria

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As part of the small Australian contingent here at OS - and one who has been quiet lately - I thought I'd give an update on our dreadful bushfire situation down here. I know others have done so as well.

I live in the foothills of the Dandenongs, quite close to some of the fire-affected areas in Victoria, though not the worst ones. All is safe where I live but it's hard not to feel affected when so much devastation is occurring within 20 minutes driving distance. A very close friend of mine has lost at least one relative at Kinglake, one of the most devastated towns. And of course the sky has been filled with smoke, not chokingly thick with it but strangely distorted - the clouds seem to hang lower and the moon is orange each night. Knowing that so many lives have been lost makes the strangeness of the sky very eery.

I am old enough to remember the Ash Wednesday fires here back in 1983; a relative of mine was one of the firefighters then. The current fires are considerably worse with over 173 lives lost and almost certainly a lot more yet to be counted.

On Saturday when the temperature climbed over 46C (116F) - part of the "perfect storm" of conditions that has made the situation so deadly - I had a distressed and heat affected ring-tailed possum stumble into my house looking for some respite from the heat; I gave it water and penned it up until it had cooled and gotten dark outside, then released it. I think it had probably also been disturbed by the smell of smoke even from some miles away. Ring-tailed possums are quite timid animals and it must have been in quite a state to risk coming into my house, great big dog and all. A lot of distressed birds came very close to me as well, and I ended up providing water for them in a shady spot. It was really quite a bizarre day, as these wildlife rescue activities are not normal for us! At this time we had no idea just how many people had already been killed in the fires.

A few years ago, I found myself just a few metres from a bushfire, near the northern city of Townsville. I was relatively safe, as we were in a canoe on the Ross River; the fire was burning right to the shore. While there was some danger of embers crossing the river, there wasn't much we could do about that so we took the canoe to check out the fire. It was one of those unforgettable things; even at some distance the heat was of an unbelievable intensity. Just terrible and savage. The ferocity of these fires is simply unimaginable until you have experienced it.

Meanwhile flooding in the north.

 


edit - photos are now below this extra bit!

 

Since this got front-paged, I thought I might add a bit more information.

The current spate of severe bushfires began on Saturday, when temperatures reached a historic high of 46.4 degrees C (116F) in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, and even higher temperatures around the state. This was after a period of weather that was nearly as hot, which left the bush on the outskirts of Melbourne and beyond extremely dry. Unfortunately our trees are even more inherently flammable than some, since they contain plenty of eucalyptus oil. They sometimes burn quite explosively.

We are used to bushfires here, to a degree, and in some of the worst affected areas there had in fact been preventative burning over the last few years to reduce fuel loads (bark, dead wood, and other matter on the forest floor). Whether there had been enough is obviously debatable, and some antipathy has for a long time been directed at excessively "green" forestry policies described as "lock it up and leave it."

The official toll is currently 181 dead and 80 missing, but there are some towns where the authorities have barely begun to search. In the most recent deadly bushfires prior to these, only47 people died in Victoria, and another 28 in South Australia. Many thousands of hectares have been razed by the fires.

Exactly why loss of life has been so high will be the subject of much analysis in the coming months. In Victoria there has for some time been a policy of "leave early or stay", meaning that homeowners may elect to stay and protect their homes, but if they do then they need to know that it's not wise to get in their car and leave at the last minute. Essentially, once you can see the flames, you are not going to be able to drive out of there. Many of the affected homes had firefighting equipment and residents who were well versed in the right steps to take. The problem appears to be that these fires were simply faster and more intense than anyone was prepared for. Some firefronts reportedly travelled 50 kilometres in thirty minutes (need to confirm this though.)

Some terrible mistakes seem to have occurred. The fire station in one of the worst affected towns, Kinglake, was completely unmanned when the fires hit, as its crew was attending fires elsewhere. I don't know whether the situation would have been improved much if someone had been there to raise more of an alarm, because it seems that the fire moved too fast for any of that. Kinglake could perhaps have been evacuated on a mandatory basis earlier, but that idea is based on hindsight; it might have been some other town that was hit instead.

Just personally, my suspicion is that a number of seemingly minor policy decisions have contributed to this over some decades, including planning decisions that have increased populations in bushfire-prone areas quite drastically. A commission of inquiry is to be set up, which I hope will be independent and suitably scathing - these commissions can be defensive and political, or they can be done right. We'll see.

Since writing this post I have learned that some people I know a little, and relatives of friends, were killed in the bushfires. Thankfully - in a grim way, I know - nobody close to me has been directly affected. Having felt the heat of a bushfire myself, though in fairly safe circumstances, I just can't bring myself to imagine the last moments of those who died on the weekend.

As a hobby, I am a bit of a 4WD enthusiast. Consequently I am pretty familiar with a lot of the devastated areas. It's inspiring to see people pulling together; many people I know, who share this hobby, are travelling some distance to deliver camper-trailers, tents, and other gear to help the 5,000 or so people who have been rendered homeless for the time being. At this point, though, the logistics of volunteering help are not too well sorted out. For our part we are donating blankets, clothes, and, funny as it may sound, pet food. The blood bank has asked people to hold off donating for the moment, as they have been inundated (metaphorically speaking) with blood donations. So in a sense, there is more will to help than we can currently handle. This bodes well for the rebuilding efforts to come.

Thanks for reading!


 

 Added 11 Feb:

volunteer

From today's Age newspaper: a volunteer at one of the relief areas helps in her own way. Somehow this is one of the most moving images I've seen since this all began.


These photos are from another bulletin board I am on. None were taken by me and I don't claim credit for them, but I think they are worth sharing.

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  tlc752

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 It is interesting and quite touching how otherwise timid animals will accept human help when they are desperate.

cfa koala

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And yet it's been flooding up north, in Queensland:

 

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Comments

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Thanks for the dispatch. I keep on watching the news and keep feeling sad and worried as the numbers of human casualties go higher.
I really can't imagine, but you brought it much closer to home for me. Thank you.
I hope you'll post again about what seems the dominant news in the U.S.: that some of this may be due to arson.

Keep us updated, please!
Thanks for the comments.

The arson question is an interesting one that is also getting a lot of discussion here. Each affected area is being treated as a "crime scene" and news reports and public pronouncements emphasise this.

My own take is not the same as everyone's, so take it with a pinch of salt... but here it is: I think the main reason our politicians are emphasising arson is to deflect attention from serious failures of policy and administration. If they can get us all worked up about arsonist bogeymen, then we may not ask as many questions about how lazy government contributed to what has happened.

The reality (and this bit is not just my opinion) is that a bushfire can start very easily in these very hot and dry conditions, and a single spot fire can easily spread over a wide area thanks to airborne embers. An arsonist can start a fire with matches. A fool can start a fire by throwing a cigarette butt away without extinguishing it properly. A fire can start because a car's hot exhaust pipe touches tall, dry grass, if a bit of bad luck kicks in. A piece of glass left on the ground can start a fire if the sun hits it the right way. A period of drought, hot weather, and plenty of fuel on the ground makes the whole state a virtual tinderbox.

In this context, I personally feel it is evasive to point fingers at arsonists. There are probably a few out there but to act as though they are the central problem misses the point, which imho is that if our fire response systems are properly designed and implemented, then no arsonist, no matter how devoted to his crimes, can cause 300 deaths in one day. Systems that would have minimised the harm from accidental or natural fires would also have prevented harm from deliberately lit ones.

So to me, it is just a bogeyman to deflect important questions.

I should say, though, that not everyone feels the same way as I do. And of course none of that changes the fact that if we actually catch and convict an arsonist, I'd like to see the bugger strung up for what he's done.

Jason
May I also point to some other posts from downunder on this topic

from Lord Jord and from Natalie
Although it's of poor quality this is amazing footage of a distressed koala drinking water from a bottle. Despite their cuddly image koalas are actually pretty vicious and don't like being approached, with a nasty set of claws. This one is a pretty big fella too.

Our firefighters, most of whom are unpaid volunteers, just fill me with admiration and pride. One guy I know - not a firefighter - was trying to help save a friend's house from fire when a fire truck pulled up, and helped them save it. A house across the road burned to the ground while this was going on. Asked why they saved this house and not the one across the road, the firefighter replied, "that was my joint mate", and returned to the truck to move onto the next fire without looking back.
Thank you so much for more posts!
I give credence to your thoughts re: arson, given the extreme circumstances. And also, "lighting a fire" IS an every day occurence.
Also, volunteer forces alone - it's like a disaster that was waiting to happen, unfortunately.
I so don't want to get caught up in an "awww...!" moment, but those nasty koalas sure look cute.

I think the description that most breaks my heart, from you, is of the ring tailed possum seeking refuge, and the parallels with human beings who couldn't get out.

Keep posting. Many, many thanks.
Your comments about arsonists being blamed for bad policy strike a chord. About 5 years ago there were some terrible fires in the Kelowna, BC area and the upper Okanagan Valley. There was an idiot who threw a lit cigarette out of a car and that sparked a big fire. But it was the same conditions you describe -- over building in areas without due attention to the conditions and the impact, dry weather, government cutbacks that meant underbrush wasn't being cleared -- and a lack of coordinated response. Nowhere near as many people died but hundreds lost their homes and their jobs when a big factory burned down and wasn't re-built, and the toll on wildlife and livestock was horrendous. The small town of Barrier disappeared overnight.

The sad thing is, nothing was learned. The rich people with their McMansions built more McMansions while many others were wiped out completely and received nothing but platitudes. And the greedy building practices and lack of stewardship of the forests continues unabated.
I hadn't realized you lived in Australia, Jason. The details you offer are great, along with the amazing pictures. It really is a world away for me, and I'm glad to see it up close.
Searching has begun in Marysville, a beautiful town of 500 famous for its rich natural environment, which may turn out to be the worst hit town of all in this bushfire crisis. Fifteen are confirmed dead but it is feared that some 100 lives have been lost there. There are bodies in the streets and the town is essentially destroyed. I just heard one of the town's residents on the radio, vowing to rebuild his home and his business.

One problem many of the towns affected will face is that tourist revenue, upon which many livelihoods depend, is likely to be reduced because of the fires. While this is trivial in light of the losses suffered, it will a significant issue in the reconstruction process - the towns were complex economic systems not just buildings.
I have been following this as close as I can. I do believe the govt is using the bogeyman of arsonist as a shield for what they dont want to admit: lack of planning and warnings. I habe been reading Lord Jim and Natalie posts as well. I am urging everyone who can to keep us updated.
The pics are very grim and scary. The height of the flames is especially disturbing.
Thank you for this Jason
"i think it would be appropriate to post links to places that are accepting donations."

Okay! But first I will say that for the moment Australians have already pledged quite a lot of money, and the agencies that are there on the ground are (for the moment at least) mainly crying out for goods, not money - almost anything you can think of from tents and shoes to horse halters and kids' toys. There was mention today that formalwear businesses have been approached for help in providing dark suits and dresses - awful but important in these circumstances. Obviously these things will only arrive soon enough if they come from local sources.

Having said that, the Australian Red Cross is the main body accepting donations.

To help wildlife - hundreds of thousands of animals have been killed or injured - there is Wildlife Victoria.

And for the pets and livestock who have been affected - not just dogs and cats but also horses, ducks, sheep, and so on as the areas affected were rural - there is Animal Aid Victoria.

I am trying not to be selective here and I hope people will alert me if I have left off something important.