Monday, February 23, 2009

This Is Australia, We Burn

By Darryl Mason

It must be incredibly unnerving to be living in thick bushland within 100kms of the three major firefronts in Victoria this morning, as mid-to-high 30s heat and strong winds are expected to intensify the fires already burning, and new outbreaks are expected.

Hundreds of families have reportedly
already decided to leave their homes in bushland outside of Melbourne, but fire authorities are trying to cut through the anticipatory fear-mongering of the morning news shows on TV as I write this to remind people that February 7 was a day of record-breaking extreme heat, and today is not expected to come close. Plus, at least 400,000 hectares of the state has already been burned out.

Conditions are grim, fire authorities are saying this morning, there will be plenty of heat and wind, but they are not expecting similar extremes of temperature and wind as February 7.

Fire authorities are still telling Victorians that if they have prepared their properties, if they are confident of protecting their homes, it is not necessary to leave. They are still pushing the 'Stay' choice of 'Stay or Go.' For those who don't think their homes or families are safe, then the time to leave is well before midday.

They've made it clear that evacuations are not underway, and they're working hard to stop the more excitable morning TV and radio hosts from whipping up useless, and dangerous, fear.

It would seem that emergency services in Victoria are as concerned about the possibility of widespread panic breaking out - causing untold chaos on roads and appalling accidents if tens of thousands of people smell the smoke and run for their cars - as they are about fires wiping out more communities. Kilometres of traffic building up in areas where fires may sweep through is something they are now trying to avoid.

The threat of more fires, more ember attacks, and more decimated towns and villages, is still jarring, terrifying, and now all too real. For those who have forgotten what carnage bushfires can unleash in this country, we need no more reminding. The images of destruction, death and misery are seared into the nation's mind now.

And it's hard to shake out of your head those images of fireys battling ten, fifteen, twenty metre high walls of fire, and funnels of flame. So many Australians are simply at the mercy of the bush around them burning. That fireys manage to control as much bushland and keep in check as many fires as they do is downright remarkable, but bushland dried by more than a decade of drought is so widespread, and so dry, they'd need tens of thousands more fireys and dozens of helicopters to even come close to guaranteeing that Victorians will be mostly safe from fires for the rest of this summer, and the summers to come.

Not being safe from fires, however, is an old Australian reality that most of us have only recently learned about again. As has often been said in the past, and in the past two weeks in particular, "This is Australia, we burn", and the land will continue to burn when the heat is intense, when the bush is paper dry and the winds are blowing hard.

If you live in the bush, when the heat boils up into the mid-to-high 30s, and strong winds pick up, you can no longer look at that billow of the smoke in the distance and shrug and say to yourself, 'Well, those fires are 40 or 50 ks away. We'll be right."

There's probably at least a few dozen people who lost their lives in Marysville and Kinglake who thought the exact same thing, never imagining that fire could sweep in faster than they could get the kids into the car and drive to escape it.

But as the Victorian premier, John Brumby, has repeatedly pointed out since February 7, even if mandatory evacuations were announced, as some believe they should have been two weeks ago, and if you were to evacuate everyone potentially threatened by fire on days like this, where exactly do you evacuate 500,000, or more, people to? Where do they go?

In the outskirts of Sydney, up into the Blue Mountains, there are some 1.5 million people living in what could be described as "bushland settings." If conditions in the future were ever to mimic Victoria's on February 7, where would all those people go? And who would do all the evacuating?

In Australia, it's all but impossible to evacuate 500,000 to 1.5 million people from an area under threat. China evacuates millions, some years more than 20 million, from flood zones every time the super-rains come and rivers rise dangerously so. But it takes days to do it safely, and it's a fantasy to think that we have anywhere near the resources to stage such mass evacuations. In Victoria or New South Wales, unlike China, most of those evacuated would have nowhere to go, and state governments would have nowhere to even tent all those people while a bushfire threat passes.

If climate change has in reality given us an horrific preview this year of what's to come, perhaps the impossible problems of massive evacuation in Australia will be overcome, eventually. Maybe.

This is Australia. We Burn.

But tinder dry bush doesn't always just burst into flames either, even when the heat is so intense it sears the nose to breathe the air. Poorly maintained electricity lines can spark bushfires (as may well the case with the fires that swept into Kinglake two weeks ago), so can discarded cigarettes, and arsonists strike around the country every year, when fire-ready conditions are most perfect.

Is there somebody, right now, down in Victoria, thinking about going out and lighting more fires today? It absolute shatters fireys every time one of their own is busted for lighting fires in the bush, and it seems to happen nearly every year now. But how do you stop these people? In the future will potential arsonists be spotted, and dealt with, pre-emptively, as we now deal with supposed terrorists? Get them before they get the chance to do something destructive and deadly?

The most moving part of the 'National Day of Mourning' yesterday was to see the fire fighting men and women, who lost their homes and friends trying to protect the houses of complete strangers. They will be back out there today, and all this week, and again this time next year. They face dangers we can't comprehend, and it's a sign of just how professional many of them are that so few are injured or killed as they battle those flames.

The fire threat, unlike most other natural disasters, comes on so many fronts, sometimes all at the same time - arson, spot fires caused by loose embers from burn-offs, lighting strikes - and all are impossible to fully contain or control. It's worse than a war, fire is without mercy.

This is Australia. We Burn.
It's a reality few of us will forget anytime soon.

Stories hitting the online headlines right now, at 8.40am, are claiming the new Victorian fires threat is greater than mentioned earlier, but authorities are still trying to avoid a situation developing where roads become choked with traffic, blocking emergency response vehicles, and potentially trapping people in the path of fires :

"Of most concern is the giant East Kilmore-Murrindindi fire," Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Lee Miezis said.

"We're talking about temperatures to the mid-30s with a northwesterly wind and a late chance with southwesterly winds

CFA state duty officer Neil Bumpstead said residents would be most at risk after the wind change forecast for late this afternoon.

Mr Bumpstead warned that if fire did reach the Warburton Valley, people who had left should be prepared to stay away for several days.

"We cannot stress enough that with limited road access in the Warburton Valley, traffic may become congested," he said.

"Being on the roads is dangerous during a fire threat."