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Australia honors those lost to fires

Thousands fill Rod Laver Arena to mourn and recognize their nation as one of 'compassion and resilience.'

February 22, 2009|Julie Cart

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — Bells tolled today across Australia as the nation paused to remember the 209 people killed during a firestorm that raged across the state of Victoria two weeks ago.

Thousands gathered on a late summer day for a nationally televised memorial service. Church bells pealed along the Yarra River, and in the Rod Laver Arena, attendees shook tiny hand bells.

As dignitaries filed into the stadium -- including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Victoria Premier John Brumby and Princess Anne, representing Queen Elizabeth -- a lone Aboriginal musician played the mournful didgeridoo. Schoolchildren clutching teddy bears and emergency workers and firefighters in their protective gear stood for the national anthem, "Advance Australia Fair."

Speakers urged Australians to remain strong, move forward and rebuild. Brumby thanked the rest of the country and the world for the outpouring of support and promised, "We will rebuild." More than $60 million has been raised to help fire victims.

Rudd read a long list of devastated communities he promised that the nation would not abandon.

"This has been a great testing of our nation's soul," he said, addressing a crowd at the national tennis center, where temperatures soared to record highs of more than 110 degrees during the Australian Open tennis tournament in late January and early this month.

"In some countries, tragedies expose the fault lines of a nation. But ours is a different nation," Rudd said. "Our nation has been as one. Australia, a nation of compassion and resilience. Let us resolve not to fail these communities."

The somber service featured well-known figures, including Princess Anne bearing a message from the "Queen of Australia," but also was laced with music and poetry, including "Bushfire Elegy" by Joel Dean: "And the world is fire and the sky wears a smoky veil, and the bloodshot sun stares."

The day of mourning will undoubtedly be followed by a period of national soul-searching in a country that is accustomed to stoically coping with the harsh elements of the world's driest continent.

In particular, Australians who live in the bush -- communities in the middle of eucalyptus forests -- are proud of their ability to fend for themselves, depending on the world's largest volunteer firefighting force.

This week a royal commission will begin its work of investigating all aspects of the tragedy. A police investigation will also be conducted, officials said.

About 5,000 firefighters battled the fires, and continue to hold off several blazes in the state. The fires wiped out at least two communities -- Kinglake and Marysville.

Thousands of Victoria residents are homeless and some remain on sports fields, camping in tents and trailers. Forensic teams have finally left fire areas that authorities consider crime scenes, and authorities say that the death toll will rise.

The fires were exacerbated by an extended drought and temperatures as high as 117 degrees, but were sparked by different causes: arson, downed power lines and cigarettes flicked from cars. A man suspected of setting a fire that killed two people in the town of Churchill is being held in jail for his own protection.

Hundreds of fires roared across the state, most of the death and damage coming on Feb. 7, referred to as Black Saturday. Australia has a long history of disastrous bush fires, but none has burned with the intensity of that day, when gale-force winds carried embers for miles, catching communities far from the fire front unawares.

The death toll was particularly shocking because so many were killed while fleeing, panic-stricken, on roads choked with smoke, littered with downed trees as well as wildlife that also was racing the flames.

Australia's much-admired policy of training residents to stay and defend their homes during bush fires has come under criticism. It was the first time since the policy known as "Leave Early or Stay and Defend" was adopted in the mid-1990s that anyone who stayed behind to protect homes died.

Dozens of nations are considering similar policies, as are states and counties in the U.S West. Fire authorities here defend the approach, even as they acknowledge that given the extreme conditions this month, there was little anyone could do to stop the flames.

Officials are considering a number of plans, including development of cigarettes that extinguish themselves. They are also considering a bush fire warning system that would include reverse 911 calls, community alarm sirens and evacuation orders that carry more authority.

--

julie.cart@latimes.com

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