Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Not Again : The Victorian Fires Part Two

Five Million Australians Get "Emergency Warning" Text Messages

In just a few hours from when this story has been posted, huge, hot winds will begins blasting across Victoria, where at least four major fire fronts are still burning. Some towns have, reportedly, already been all but emptied, and during the night, hundreds more families fled what may, or may not, turn out to be another horrific day of death and tragedy.

From ABC News :

Victorians are being urged to secure their homes ahead of strong northerly winds expected around dawn.

Around 5,000 firefighters are on high alert with the winds due to hit western Victoria, before extending across the state and reaching Melbourne.

The weather bureau's Terry Ryan says wind gusts could top 100 kilometres per hour

"Those stronger winds will pick up in the Melbourne area about 6:00 am or 7:00 am, winds 60 to 80 kilometres per hour developing quite quickly, gusts possible to 100 [kph]," he said.

"The alpine area a little bit later, gusts to about 120 [kph] in the alpine area, those winds will turn west with a change entering the west of the state around midday to 1:00pm."

Hundreds of schools, 30 national parks and and Melbourne's Botanic Gardens will be closed.

It is feared the gusty conditions will result in four major fires jumping containment lines and spreading rapidly.

One of the most effective fire-fighting methods used so far in battling the weeks of fires across Victoria that have claimed more than 210 lives and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property, homes and businesses, has been waterbombing planes and helicopters.

But if wind conditions get too intense today, these aircraft will be grounded. Then it will be all up to the thousands of firefighters to do what they can to stop the flames.

Little rain has fallen anywhere in Victoria since February 7, and some of the biggest fires are now burning in what has been described, soberly, as "difficult terrain."

And once again, the fear looms of some pyromaniac setting fires in the path of the huge winds that could lead to further, and only recently unimaginable, carnage.

"If other fires start, if they are unable to be quickly pounced upon, those fires will rapidly spread and obviously wind is the great enemy in that case...."

Some three to five million mobile phones in Victoria (and some in Tasmania) have received messages warning of the terrible dangers that today could bring. A number of news reports have claimed that every mobile phone (registered and unregistered) in Victoria received a warning message.

Here's how it was done :

The state's major telecommunications networks — Telstra, Optus and Hutchison — sent warnings from Victoria Police to their mobile customers yesterday afternoon, warning of high wind and fire risk, and advising they listen to ABC radio for emergency updates.

The networks sent the messages to more than 3 million phones, using technology that isolated Victorian numbers, and sent the texts in bulk through a dispatch centre.

Premier John Brumby said the technology trial was a first for the state and a supplement to warnings made through the media.

However, he said the system was not suitable for an immediate threat, such as a terrorist attack or tsunami, because it could only deliver texts at a rate of up to 600,000 an hour.

"We can't provide an instantaneous warning," he said. "We're not in a position to do that yet, we don't have the capacity or the technology.

Maybe Victorians will get a weather miracle before the fires get out of control. A much-needed dose of unexpected, near miraculous, heavy rain, or a sudden shift in the predicted winds that will turn the fires back on themselves, back towards land already burned.

It's like firefighters are battling a war against an almost unstoppable enemy, huge fires have been burning constantly across Victoria for almost a solid month. How the fiirefighters maintain their sanity going in again and again to take on such a force of often unstoppable destruction is incomprehensible to those who have never had to do it.

No wonder so many firefighters talk about the flames as though they are living, killing, unstoppable beasts, monstrous things taller than buildings, longer than freeways, that burn your skin to a crisp long before you even see the flames.

Fire lives and breathes, and it eats and kills voraciously, without mercy.

They cannot stop it, they can only turn it back, calm it down, contain it, until it runs of breath, out of fuel, out of energy. Until it returns again later in the year. But not late enough for the many in Victoria who have been psychologically shattered by the horrors and loss of the past few weeks, and who must now dread next summer, like the arrival of hell itself.

UPDATE : Damn, maybe I should go into the miracle-predicting business (is there one?).

Rains doused Melbourne this morning, and winds have not been as strong, or as widespread, as expected. Threats to lives and property posed by fire fronts remain strong, but the rest of today is not expected to unfold as ultra-dangerously as predicted by weather forecasters and fire fighting officials :
While Melbourne, Geelong and surrounding suburbs are getting damp, fire authorities said the drizzle would be nowhere near the amount needed to douse fires.

However, a weather spokesman told 3AW radio that the drizzle has prevented winds reaching expecting highs, and should prevent temperatures rising to a forecast 32.