Home / Black Saturday, Australia’s Worst Bushfire Disaster: Anatomy Of An Inferno

Black Saturday, Australia’s Worst Bushfire Disaster: Anatomy Of An Inferno

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

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

About the silver surfer

  • great reporting, SS. I am baffled by the mind warped enough to start the fires and endanger so many. Hope all the culprits get caught, but what punishment could match the crime and cost?

  • STM

    Thanks, EL. We are mortified here too by the idea that some of these fires were deliberately lit. One we know for certain was arsoncertainly … Country Fire Authority firefighters put it out early before the extreme wind change, and then it was relit.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Riveting writing. I’m grateful that you shared your perspective on this. Like EB, I’m dumbfounded that somebody would start this blaze. Simply awful shit.

  • STM

    Thanks Jordan … [edited]

    None of us can comprehend how anyone, in those kinds of conditions, could light a bushfire knowing the devastation it would cause.

    Really, it’s beyond belief

  • This is the biggest news story in the entire world right now – thanks for sharing your insights, Stan.

    Australia is not a continent to be trifled with. As you observed, this fire is not necessarily the biggest or baddest there’s ever been. It’s simply that every time a big one happens, there are more and more humans to get in the way.

  • Stan,

    I’d been cut off from the news and the like for a number of days, and upon returning to the internet yesterday, the terrible fires raging in Victoria State were the first things I saw on the screen.

    While I have a number of thoughts on the matter, my first concern is for those I know Down Under. That’s you, but also includes some folks who attempted to give it a go living here and returned to Exile. I haven’t heard from them, and have forgotten where they live, but I do remember their names. Where is there a list of those whose lives were taken by the fire?

    Finally, this was riveting writing. Good on you for the writing. But it’s a damned shame you should have had to write such a piece at all….

  • STM

    Thanks guys. Always good to hear from Doc and Ruve. Yes Ruve, if you click on the first link in the story you’ll go to The Daily Telegraph site – which has some heart-rending coverage of the aftermath and some amazing stories of survival – and I think there’s a freecall phone number there that you can call. Many of the victims haven’t been identified, however.

  • Cindy D

    Great article Stan. Very sad. I hope you are safe.

  • STM

    Thanks Cindy. Luckily, I’m in the next state … no bad fires actually where I am, but one big not far away over the weekend that didn’t spread thanks to a cool change and some rain. We’ve been spared this summer in New South Wales.

  • Fires are just a fact of life there, aren’t they, Stan? Same here in California. It’s only when they collide with human populations that things get ugly.

    There always seem to be fires in the eucalyptus forests somewhere. I remember travelling by train from Morriset, near Newcastle, to Sydney in December ’05, and seeing fires in the hills almost the entire way. They were being watched, but apparently just allowed to burn themselves (hopefully) out.

    And one can usually see smoke somewhere in the Sierra Nevada mountains (when they’re visible through the smog!) here in summer. The forest fire service seems to be a bit more proactive than their Australian counterparts, but on the whole, the fires don’t pose much of a danger unless they get close to a town or a ranch.

  • STM

    Doc: A lot of those fires you see are what we call hazard-reduction burns. Sometimes they’ll just let a natural fire burn and keep an eye on it, as it serves the same purpose. Fire is a natural part of the ecology of this continent, so letting them burn isn’t an issue – some plants only seed here through fire, and the aborigines have been managing fire for many, many, centuries before white settlement.

    However, in recent years, environmentalists have opposed controlled burns in many forests and national parks, which has led to a build up of fuel. In some places, fire trails are near impassable. While that might have been a factor in some areas on the weekend, there is no suggestion it’s the cause of the tragedy.

    One of the main problems in Victoria might have been the legislation that allows people to opt to stay and defend their properties under a fireplan they have to submit. Under that, they also need to take other safety options.

    In this case, the fire became something no firefighters anywhere in the world had ever seen before – bearing in mind that in Australia, wildfires can burn much faster and approach with more speed.

    One of the sad things about the weekend now emerging is that many triple-0 operators (our equivalent of 911) had people on the line while they were dying, much like the September 11 attacks.

    It all happened so quickly. The fires seemed manageable on Saturday afternoon, then the wind changed and hit speeds of 100km/h, which merged some of the fires and turned them into what’s called a “megafire”.

    These fires are so big and powerful, they actually create their own weather conditions.

    But yes, it’s man trying to live cheek-by-jowl with mother nature that’s a problem.

    There’s always going to be fires here – we’re the most fire-prone place on Earth – and people make allowances for it, but in this case, this fire really was something else, and the scale and ferocity of it was something no one could have predicted.

    Like I say, the perfect firestorm created by a whole range of unlikely conditions that came together in a very short period of time. Just bad luck, really. That’s the truth.

  • STM

    Doc, the death toll is being revised today to upwards of 300. Meanwhile, a planeload of firefighters from the US is coming in to help with some of the fires that are still burning, along with others from NZ who are already here.

    They regularly do this – Australian and NZ firefighters went to the US last year for those bad forest fires. It’s good to see.

  • It is one of the great disaster in Australia’s history and worst bushfire in the country.

    These types of bushfire were caused due to fallen or clashing power lines or were deliberately lit,lightning,sparks from a power tool and also by human-induced climate change.
    These types of fires spreads vastly and it is more powerful too..

    We must aware and protect ourselves from the natural disaster..
    Thanks for the report.