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Australia: A fire like no other

Now residents must try to learn the lessons of this year's inferno.

February 13, 2009|Gerard Wright | Gerard Wright is an Australian journalist living in Los Angeles.

To understand what last Saturday was like in the rolling foothills of the Great Dividing Range, northeast of Melbourne, Australia, imagine a scorching September day in Los Angeles, one with fierce Santa Ana winds and humidity in the single digits.

Now imagine those winds shifting direction almost instantly, so what was blowing at 60 mph in one direction is suddenly blowing in the opposite direction.

In Melbourne and southern Victoria, that kind of shift is known as the "cool change," because it usually brings a sharp drop in temperature -- as much as 20 degrees in half an hour. It is the climate's relief switch.

But on Saturday, the winds changed without the "cool." The mercury touched 115 degrees that day, and the soil had gotten so hot, it warmed the air, keeping temperatures high for hours after the shift.

Instead of helping firefighters, this "cool change" sent fire fronts racing toward two towns that were thought to be out of harm's way, Kinglake and Marysville. Both sit adjacent to forests of eucalyptus trees, with their explosive oil-sap and fire-ready bark.

The people who lived in the towns had two choices: fleeing by car into a maelstrom of dense smoke, fallen trees and other vehicles, or staying behind to make a stand against the ferocious flames.

In rural areas of southern Victoria, homeowners are trained in fire defense through a program developed by the Country Fire Authority called "Leave Early or Stay and Defend." The program teaches residents that it is no great act of courage to stay and defend a home, nor is it an act of cowardice to leave -- but the decision to leave or stay should be made early and then stuck to.

Those opting to stay behind are taught to extinguish the embers that come in advance of an approaching fire, to dress appropriately, to maintain working pumps and reliable water storage tanks. They are taught that a bush fire cannot be outrun and just barely fought, but that in most cases, it will pass over a structure in a matter of minutes and that cool heads and quick work can save a house.

My friend Jim is a volunteer with the Fire Authority, and on Sunday, it was his melancholy task to conduct "welfare checks" on the south side of the small town near his farm. Twenty-six houses had been lost. His job was to go to see if anyone had died.

We talked that evening. This fire was different, he said. People who stayed to defend their properties found themselves confronting 130-foot-high walls of flame, driven by 60 mph winds, far beyond anything they had prepared for.

Across the region, many tried to flee too late. And many died. Deadly blazes aren't unusual in Victoria and southern Australia. On Black Friday, in January 1939, 71 people died in raging fires. On Ash Wednesday in February 1983, 83 people died. But this firestorm was the deadliest of all, with at least 181 deaths.

Now Australians must try to learn the lessons of this year's infernos. In doing so, they will consider whether the "Leave Early or Stay and Defend" program needs to be modified.

They will examine how a decade of prosperity encouraged suburban families to build dream houses in more rural areas, and how many of those families never learned the self-sufficiency and community spirit that is part of the Australian rural ethos.

And they will contemplate how to plan for a future in which climate change is likely to increase the ferocity and intensity of fires. Scientists are already analyzing the extent to which the 12-year drought, the ferocious winds, the record-breaking heat -- not just in temperature, but duration -- were not simply the price of living in Australia, but the result of a warming planet. For me, the enduring symbol of this fire will be a photograph that ran in newspapers around the world this week. In it, a firefighter holds a bottle of water while a thirsty koala drinks. Koalas spend most of their lives in eucalyptus trees, where they perch in the forks, half asleep, and chew leaves. They avoid humans.

To be Australian, and perhaps more especially, to have grown up in southern Victoria and see this image, is to know that this familiar place has lurched on its axis and headed off in another new and unpredictable direction.

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