Monday, March 16, 2009

The Victorian bushfires

The Victorian bushfire emergency is finally over, more than a month after what is now called "Black Saturday", 7th February. Some fires are still burning, but are "contained" (burning within a perimeter).

Over 200 people killed, around 2000 homes destroyed - Australia's worst natural disaster. It led to extraordinary outpourings of generosity, and the State Government has set up a Bushfire Reconstruction Authority, headed by the just-retired Police Commissioner Christine Nixon. It has also set up a Royal Commission, with very wide terms of reference: "courageous", as Sir Humphrey would say; good to see a Government not trying to control the outcome of an inquiry in advance.

Several people have asked me if we were affected. Fortunately, not. There were only minor fires near Ballarat. The nearest sizeable fire was near Daylesford, about 35 km to the north, as the crow flies (or the bushfire travels). Also, we are near the centre of town, though being in a town doesn't necessarily provide protection in extreme conditions - 50 or more houses were destroyed in Bendigo, a town similar in size to Ballarat and about 100 km north. I remember walking through whole suburbs of Hobart that were wiped out in the fires there in 1967, when about 60 people were killed.

There were a couple of days when we decided not to go anywhere, because of road closures around Daylesford and Trentham, and the generally threatening conditions. On Saturday 7th, Ballarat had its all-time record maximum temperature of 44 degrees (111 degrees Fahrenheit), and this was cooler than much of the State - Melbourne reached 46.4.

The most destructive fires were apparently in the Mountain Ash forests. One writer said that these forests are usually wet, and will only burn after a long drought and in extreme conditions. Then they burn with extreme ferocity. The usual advice about defending one's home, if sufficiently prepared, simply didn't work for Black Saturday.

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