Outside Antarctica, this is the harshest continent on the planet. If you’ve been watching the news in America, Europe or elsewhere over the past few days and the deadly inferno raging across Australia, you’ll understand that in some ways, it might even be worse. The big difference is that Antarctica, unlike Australia, doesn’t play host to such extremes of temperature and drought – and so many other freakish natural phenomena occurring in cycles and which turn it every few years into a tinderbox, setting up all the conditions that can spark the perfect firestorm.
That anyone has been able to settle this continent, let alone draw sustenance from it, is a miracle, and therein lies the conundrum. This is a sunburnt country and it is the meeting of man and nature that is so dangerous everywhere in Australia, and particularly in a bushfire, and particularly in the case of Saturday's killer fire.
Experts have pointed out that climate change isn’t likely to be a factor in Australia’s worst natural disaster: bushfires have ravaged Australia for hundreds of thousands of years. They are just another part of an extreme landscape in a place where, among many other dangers, you can die of thirst very quickly in deserts that keep their water locations secret to all but a few, where snakes are everywhere, even in suburbia, and are the deadliest in the world, where spiders that live in garden sheds in big cities or take refuge overnight in your shoes will kill you with a single bite, and death from big sharks or crocodiles or deadly jellyfish is something you need to think about all the time if you are venturing into any known habitats.
Fire just adds one more dimension here. It’s unlikely that the bushfires that have razed Victoria and left a path of death and destruction are the biggest seen on this continent. Even nature has adapted to it, and if you believe in evolution, all the evidence is there: there are trees and plants here that only spread their seeds and reproduce through fire. But they are certainly the worst fires since white settlement, and with the shocking death toll now expected to creep into the 200-plus bracket as firefighters and rescuers start getting into towns and hamlets that were inaccessible over the past few days, they are certainly the deadliest.
We give each of these big fires a name: Black Friday … Ash Wednesday, and now Black Saturday.… How it works is simple but deadly: heatwave, high temperatures in the 40s, in this case over the preceding few weeks right across south-eastern Australia, and culminating in 47.9C on Saturday afternoon at Avalon, just outside Melbourne, the capital of Victoria – the state that has seen all the deaths and borne the brunt of the fire catastrophe. Add extreme low humidity – in a place where it’s usually very high – that combines with strong, hot and changeable winds (or howling cool changes off the southern ocean like the one that reached speeds of over 100km/h on Saturday afternoon and simply fuelled the conflagration). Now throw hundreds of thousands of acres of near impenetrable eucalypt forest, the big gum trees, or what we call “bushland” in Australia, which drops dry branches and dead foliage onto the ground. And around the rural urban areas, there is the grassland that has also dried out in the searing heatwave.
In the years between fires, this all builds up and can reach a few metres deep in places. Rain leads to more undergrowth. In times of extended drought, which is what we’ve had here, that all becomes dry. Firefighters euphemistically but accurately refer to it as “fuel”. Where possible, especially when it's close to homes, and despite opposition from environment groups that has seen some national parks "locked up" to controlled burns over the past couple of decades, they try to reduce it through backburning – but they physically can't get everything.
Each summer in Australia, newspapers in every capital city carry the warning that the “state is a tinderbox”. It’s a ready-made cliché, but sadly, it’s often the truth here. Tinderbox really is the perfect way to describe it. The hot offshore westerlies that blow in off the desert on the east coast over summer are fire winds, and carry the smell of the outback: dust, smoke and pollens.
When the fuel burns, the oil-rich eucaplypts burn, and they burn quickly. Embers blow in the direction of the wind and lead to spot fires that can erupt into a firefront ahead of the original one. At the base of a big fire like this in Australia, the temperature can reach 2000C. The tips of the flames will reach 900C, and the heat can kill before the flames do. Changes in air pressure suck in oxygen to fan the flames, and the sound of it roaring across the tree tops sounds like a runaway freight train – which is how survivors and firefighters described Saturday’s inferno. Wind changes can join separate firefronts so that they become one, huge, raging megafire. Kevin Tolhurst, University of Melbourne senior lecturer in fire ecology and management, said the conditions were some of the world's worst. He said temperatures within the fire were so hot it released enough energy to supply Victoria with electricity for at least two years. Up to 80,000kw/m of heat was expelled as fires raged on Saturday. Mr. Tolhurst said this equalled about 500 atomic bombs. He said eyewitness accounts said that they didn't see any evidence of fire and then all of a sudden they felt the area around them was exploding.
Years ago I had a – very short – try-out stint in the old volunteer bush fire brigade, and have covered bushfires as a reporter in my home state, New South Wales, which was also under threat in 40C-plus temperatures on Saturday and Sunday, and have seen “crown fires” where the tops of trees burn and push flames hundreds of metres into the air. The air is so hot nearby it feels like it's pulling the breath from your lungs, and the fires are so intense, they can jump across roads and even wide areas of cleared land. And the smell of burning eucalypt is distinctive and choking.
Frightening wouldn’t be the right word to describe the whole scenario. It’s horrifying. At Christmas, 1994, my wife and I and sat in our old apartment on the shores of Sydney Harbour, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Central Business District, with the entire city and outer suburbs ringed by acrid, brown smoke. Fatal fires have raged in the past across most states, the worst being in South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, NSW and the Australian Capital Territory.
What made this one so different on Saturday afternoon, in rural Victoria, is that all those terrifying factors conspired to create a perfect firestorm of unimaginable ferocity.
Many of the dead had no chance to react. Those who survived report the sky suddenly turning black, being showered with embers and then the heat and flames being upon them. Under Victoria’s laws, residents can choose to evacuate or are asked to come up with a fireplan to remain and fight off the fires. That involves such precautions as the clearing of land around their homes, taking steps to make sure their gutters and combustibles around the yard or home don’t catch fire, and setting up water tubs to damp down the spot fires that can come ahead of the main firefront. In short, you make an early decision and stick with it.
In this case, while some people did flee and take shelter and others stayed and managed to save their homes, the intensity was such that many tried to flee too late in the face of the fires and didn’t make it. At Kinglake, six people died when four cars crashed in the confusion as they tried to flee. It was a similar story everywhere. Right across rural Victoria, firefighters and police have been uncovering more and more vehicles containing bodies. Some people died getting out of their cars in a futile attempt to outrun the fires or find shelter. Some tried to return to their homes and farms to rescue their animals, and perished with them. Others remained in their homes and paid the price. Others tried to shelter on the relative safety of big, wide cricket ovals (where on any other summer Saturday or Sunday, they'd be relaxing and talking with friends and having a beer or a glass of wine and a barbecue as the local teams go around) and died there. Others are so badly burned they won’t survive. The pretty little town of Marysville no longer exists. It's been wiped off the map.
Some of those who escaped with their lives lost everything else they had. Homes, farm buildings, schools, businesses and shops lie in charred lumps of twisted metal, rubble and brick. Burned out cars dot the blackened landscape, where burned tree trunks stand up like matchsticks. Some of the firefighters, meanwhile, battled on over the weekend knowing their own families were in danger. Sadly, having put their own lives at risk to protect others, some discovered later that they had lost their families or their homes or both.
Although the Victorian Premier, John Brumby, has announced there will be a Royal Commission into the fires, the coronial inquiry will likely come first. While arson is suspected in a couple of cases, no one is definitively apportioning blame at this point for the scale of the disaster on anything but the fury of mother nature and the fickle conditions that created the killer fire – and this week, it’s not the time for that.
The nation is grieving, and the scale is so beyond the capacity of normal human understanding that the floods that have devastated large areas of the northern, tropical state of Queensland at the same time have largely gone unheralded. The Government's second multi-billion dollar economic stimulus plan that is in danger of being held up by Liberal numbers in the Senate, has been all but forgotten.
But the consensus is that no amount of preparation beyond early total evacuation could have saved those who perished, such was the speed and ferocity of the fires, all compounded by the factors that turned it into a perfect firestorm. Fires that had looked manageable earlier on Saturday suddenly took on the qualities of a nuclear blast as the wind changed and the fires converged, destroying everything in their path. In some cases, entire communities, like those of the once picturesque and beautiful Strathewen Valley, where many of the fatalities occurred and which firefighters have dubbed the valley of death, were ringed by flame and were unable to escape to areas of relative safety.
Last night, at the time of filing this story, the official death toll was 181, but authorities warn it will be higher.
Victoria’s Deputy Police Commissioner, Kieran Walshe, revealed on Saturday night that some of the fires were deliberately lit. No doubt both the coronial inquiry and the Royal Commission will get to the bottom of it, as will the expected police investigations to come.
In the meantime, the affected communities are determined to rebuild and the nation will pull together as it always does in time of crisis. The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who toured the fire sites yesterday with Brumby and who offered personal condolence to suffering families, has already pledged $10 million in early emergency relief to add to the state’s funding, and much of ordinary and corporate Australia has pitched in too: banks, media companies, grocery chains, just about everyone you can think of, is offering to pitch in with huge amounts of cash or goods and services. Coles, one of the big two supermarket chains in Australia, has offered its entire profit from this Friday’s trading.
The real truth to this, though, and probably the real lesson, is that you can’t defend against nature. As other victims of natural disasters have discovered both here and around the world, there is a limit to what man can do in his feeble attempts to stop her.Powered by Sidelines