Monday, February 09, 2009

A Holocaust Of Fire, Cyclones Of Flames, Burn Hundreds To Death

Photo submitted to a Herald Sun readers gallery by Chris Roche

By Darryl Mason

The scope of the destruction, the scale of human tragedy of the apocalyptic Sunday fires in country Victoria, Australia's worst bushfire disaster, is beyond comprehension.

More than 100 dead, almost 1000 homes, properties and business destroyed, entire towns and villages in country Victoria laid to waste, some 350,000 hectares burned.

Reading through dozens of stories, listening to the stories of remarkably calm and lucid survivors on radio, trying to take in all those images of horror on TV, of entire towns obliterated by fire and cyclonic winds, of lone firefighters taking on five and six story high walls of flames with a single hose, of frantic survivors trying to find missing friends and family members, it's impossible to summarize any of it, all of it.

Again and again survivors describe "firestorms" that barreled in from nowhere and swept through faster than a train killing almost everything they touched. Why didn't they leave sooner? Why wasn't everyone evacuated? How did this appalling horror become reality, here? In this age? With all our technology? How can more than 100 people burn to death like this?

It's like a tragedy from another century. But in some areas the office tower tall walls of cyclonic fire roared through 30 kilometres of bush and scrub in less than an hour. The glow on the horizon, that distant plume of smoke, came and laid waste to a house, a farm, an entire village, in the time it takes to make a cup of tea and a sandwich and watch a few overs of the cricket.

The visuals that haunt and linger now are of all those cars, reduced to grey and black metal husks, some all alone on charred roads, others rammed into each other in piles of six, seven, eight vehicles outside of towns with names that are literally scorched into our national consciousness, three cars almost melted into each other with a power pole slammed down amongst them, and what looks like black strips of melted rubber along some roads which may mean people were trying to outrun the flames when the tires of their cars caught fire and fell apart.

Right now it appears that at least 30 people were burned to death in their cars trying to get away from the flames that, for many, came on them with little warning, or no warning at all. Some were up at home, watching news of fires that must have seemed so far away, until the sky turned almost instantly black with smoke. Some had a few minutes to attempt their escapes, some would have had less than one.

Right now, Australian soldiers who thought they would never see anything worse than scores of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, are helping to recover the corpses from burned out cars, in some vehicles whole families, with their pets and photos and treasured possessions, and digging through the wreckage of hundreds of farms and homes looking for those still missing. What they are seeing is worse than anything insurgents and terrorists in foreign lands unleashed, this is home, Australia, countryside that some of these soldiers have known since their childhood, beautiful Australian country towns and villages once lined with ancient trees and postcard-beautiful old wooden homes that have stood strong for more than a century, all of them gone.

Late yesterday afternoon, the bodies of those who tried to run away from the flames and perhaps found another skin-melting wall of fire instead of escape, were still lying by the sides of black roads that once carried locals and tourists through some of the most picturesque countryside you could ever hope to see. Some of the bodies were covered with blankets pinned down by rocks, a makeshift effort at giving the dead some dignity.

This isn't just, or yet, another Australian bushfire tragedy. Between 20,000 and 30,000 bush fires break out in Australia in an average year, few claim any lives, or burn any homes. Nobody has ever seen anything like this, not here, not the oldest of locals or the most experienced of soldiers or rescue workers or the thousands of incredibly brave fire fighters or the busloads of specialists now streaming in to help recover and deal with all the dead.

And it's not over yet.

One absolutely shocking, jarring example of the holocaust that consumed a small country's worth of Australian bush land on Sunday: it appears more people were killed outright than seriously burned by these fires.

There are more dead than severely injured.

Photo submitted to Herald Sun by Simon Bourke

The fire came in like a 'beast' :
...flames more than 15 metres high leapt through treetops in a seemingly unstoppable advance. Houses burst into flames as gas cylinders ignited, sending fire into the blackened sky.

One Raywood CFA member who helped extinguish a shed and caravan fire off Maiden Gully Road described the fire with its intense heat as the worst he had seen.

"It was pitch black, the heat was enormous, with flames 15 to 20 metres high as it crossed the road," Ian Henley said.

Mr Hanley described the fire as selective in the way it burned towards the more densely populated suburban areas of West Bendigo.

"It was like it came up to something and said, 'No, I don't want you — I'll take you.'

"It had a mind of its own, like a beast," he said.

More survivors talk of the super deadly fires in Kinglake as though the flames were living, thinking entities :
It seemed the fire was hunting the residents of Kinglake, according to survivor Jason Webb.

The survivors, some carrying everything they now own, spoke of an afternoon summer sky blackened by smoke and a giant orange fireball that hung over their town as flames engulfed their homes and killed their neighbours.

"It didn't seem that bad and then the smoke just blacked out the sky and it had a real ominous feel about it," he said.

"Suddenly it just turned really nasty, almost like it was going to walk past us and went 'Hang on there's some houses over there' , and it just turned and came straight at us."

Gary Hughes :

They call it "ember attack".

Those words don't do it justice. It is a fiery hailstorm from hell driving relentlessly at you. The wind and driving embers explore, like claws of a predator, every tiny gap in the house.

Embers blow through the cracks around the closed doors and windows.

We frantically wipe at them with wet towels. We are fighting for all we own.

Patrick Carlyon : one yet could know just how many gruesome revelations awaited.

Of six people dead in a car accident in Kinglake.

Of the badly burned Kinglake man kept alive for six hours by being submerged by friends in a pool.

Of the Marysville firefighter who lost his wife and daughter while fighting the blazes.

Of the motorcyclist burnt alive in St Andrews.

Of the woman who left fighting the fires to save her goats who was found dead by her son in a shed.

A badly burnt man and his daughter turned up at a property where Marie Jones was staying. He had skin hanging "off him everywhere".

The man told her: "Look, I've lost my wife, I've lost my other kid, I just need you to save (my daughter)."

As hard as it is may be to comprehend, there are worse ways to die in a bushfire than to be immediately consumed by flames. There are two terms that yesterday were unfamiliar, but are now part of the vocabulary of discussing these fires. One is "ember attack". The other is "radiant heat". And as fire fighter after fire fighter explained in interviews, radiant heat kills :

A University of Melbourne senior lecturer in fire ecology and management, Kevin Tolhurst, said the radiant heat - the heat given off by the fires - would itself have been enough to kill. "When it gets close, you have enormous radiation loads."

The "survivability" distance of Saturday's heat was about four times their height - a 35-metre high fire would directly imperil those within 140 metres.

The body would get over-stressed, the core temperature would get too high and the metabolism would break down in those conditions. He said bushfires produce their own volatile gases which in turn burn - and on a day as hot as Saturday, it does not take much for them to ignite.

Dr Tolhurst said people could be surrounded by a series of spot fires. Breathing would become difficult due to burning gases and the body would dehydrate quickly. Death from a form of asphyxiation was also possible.

And finally, another remarkable tale of survival, thanks to a horse :
Mr Sexton grabbed his horse, Jeune Mark, the offspring of 1995 Melbourne Cup winner Jeune, a cold beer from the fridge and walked out the gate. They started trotting, but just a few hundred metres from home they were confronted by flames.

"As we got up around the corner the flames just went absolutely sick, so I thought we'd turn around and try and race back. But the fire came up behind us, it came down from the hill, and we were just bloody engulfed, and I just thought to myself, 'That's it. This is where I'm going to die,' " he said.

But then something remarkable happened, perhaps by accident, perhaps not. Jeune Mark pushed him over a guard rail, and after a short wrestle with the horse he stumbled and raced down to the Traralgon Creek, on his own, and lay in it.

"I was screwed. I was covered in flames," he said. But after lying there for two or more hours, and after noticing that the flames had past, Mr Sexton emerged from the water and followed the creek towards home.

Jeune Mark....was standing in the paddock, the worse for wear, with burns around his eyes and nose, but still alive.
Dozens of fires are still burning in Victoria and New South Wales. The days ahead will be cooler than the record breaking heat of the past week, but winds are still unpredictable. There could be more to come.

Australia's Worst Bushfire Disaster

The Dead Zone : Dozens Killed In Kinglake, 550 Homes Destroyed

"The Man Up The Road Is On Fire"

John Fergeson : From The Air, It's Like Armageddon