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:
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.
It is interesting and quite touching how otherwise timid animals will accept human help when they are desperate.
And yet it's been flooding up north, in Queensland: