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.