Sunday, February 08, 2009

Fire

The cool change hit Melbourne with a rush last night. The temperature dropped to the low twenties over the course of an hour; and by the time we went round to our neighbours' for dinner, it was perfectly pleasant. Four families, five boys; each family bringing a course (me? summer pudding; citrus fruit salad with candied peel; home-frozen Greek yoghurt with honey) Sitting outside, though, we could see one of the big water-bearing helicopters flying overhead, and thought the pink clouds might well have been reflecting smoke. But it wasn't till Margot heard from her daughter, who was helping serve dinner to firefighters in Kilmore, reporting that 40 people were feared dead, that we had any idea of how serious the fires were.

We've woken this morning — a cool, grey day — to reports that 26* are now confirmed dead across the state, with every expectation that number will rise over 40, and that the numbers will include children. Many of these died in their cars, leaving fire areas too late. Six in one car in Kinglake, where Gordon and I went hiking a few months ago. Fires around Beechworth and Myrtelford, where we cycled last year on our Ned Kelly tour.

I can't turn off the radio. The ABC turns itself into an emergency broadcaster at times like this, and I'm mesmerised by the reiteration of tiny townships and roads affected by the fires which are still burning, far worse than the most dramatic predictions. The Churchill fire that "got up and ran to the coast"; the dreadful realisation that lots of these fires were deliberately lit (sometimes by volunteer firefighters); the idea of "spotting", where the fire sends embers up to four kilometres or more ahead of itself. The new knowledge that there is a town called "Robin Hood". The man who was herding cattle wearing thongs and a t-shirt, now in the Alfred with burns to 50% of his body. The fact that people are still driving into the fire areas to have a look, amidst endless warnings to stay off the roads.

I think it's hard not to be fascinated by fire on this scale. I'm not proud of it, but there it is. And if you share my fascination, here's a link to The Age.

[Update: Sunday night. 76 dead, and numbers still expected to rise. Appalling tales emerging of trees exploding, the fire suddenly changing direction, people being trapped, running from house to house for shelter, hiding in cellars, in creek beds with children and lyrebirds, of husbands, wives, children losing each other. The landscape will regenerate, but lives and communities are shattered, and whole towns destroyed. Here's a map].

[Goodness. 108.]

[Was going to keep updating, but it's too heartbreaking. Monday afternoon: 126 confirmed dead, but they are now saying to prepare for a total of around 230. Oh, the great pity of it all.]

9 comments:

Penthe said...

It's not just voyeurism, though that's probably part of it. As you say, many of us have spent a lot of time in those areas or live in other parts of Australia surrounded by eucalypt forests, even in the capital cities.

It's not looking on at what's happening to other people, it's dread that it could easily be happening to us. And perhaps, trying to learn from what's going on, so if the fire roars up a ridge nearby we'll be able to survive it.

I should stop trying to rationalise it, but I can't stop keeping up with the news.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

I saw the news and immediately thought of you and my research collaborator in Melbourne. I hope that you and yours are all safe and remain so, but what a terrible time it must be.

I remember last year when I went down the great Ocean Drive and my guide pointed out all the houses that had been consumed by fire and then rebuilt over the last forty years. It was hard to imagine in such a green and peaceful (to me English-looking) pastoral landscape, yet the stories of the fires and the people that had died were the threads that bound her history of her neighbourhood.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Oh! finally, I got it! S!

Yes, we're well safe in the city; but the toll has now reached 76 and is still rising.

People have been swapping stories of their recollections of the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983; how we all saw the red clouds and the ash dropping over the city. There's barely a smell of smoke in Melbourne today, but the devastation and loss of life is much greater.

Penthe, the big mystery to me is how you are supposed to know when to leave. They seem to give the general warning days before the fire hits. I guess that's the safest option, but I can absolutely sympathise with people who stay as long as they can.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Frightening times ...

Ceirseach said...

131.

But the official death count from my aunt's town is still 4, and she knows many more who have died, so if that's at all representative across the state - yes. At least 200.

How on earth does this happen?

meli said...

yeah my man (whose field is safety/human factors) was wondering what sort of warning systems were in place. i read somewhere that they advise people to stay and try to save their homes, but this doesn't seem to be a good idea if there's such a risk that you won't be able to escape.

i'm too young to remember ash wednesday, but i do remember a sort of hush and awe and sorrow in people's voices when it was mentioned. i grew up thinking ash wednesday was named after the bushfires.

too horrific.

Stephanie Trigg said...

You know, there are still towns that are closed off as crime scenes (arson), and because there are unidentifiable bodies in the streets. Truly horrendous stories.

I think the combination of winds and high temperatures and the last few years' drought was just unprecedented; and then when the dramatic wind change came through, the fires just instantly changed direction and took people, even seasoned CFA people, by surprise.

But they are starting to re-visit their "stay and fight with a fire plan or leave early" policy, because there's not enough checking of whether those plans are adequate. One family took refuge in the cellar under the house, but the house still exploded — can you imagine? — and they were all killed.

The heat (to say nothing of the noise) seems to have been incredible, so that garden hoses and buckets were melting, too. So it was unprecedented heat and terror; and the fires moving faster than ever seen before; so that people couldn't stay where they were, and tried to drive. But the smoke made everything black, and so cars crashed into each other.

Ceirseach said...

Well...

Is "so much bush has been burned that we won't be able to have fires on this scale again for a long time" an up side?

Robert Rouse said...

This is absolutely heartbreaking. Have been watching the news footage on the NZ news and the stories of loss are just chilling. I really hope that horrors like the are not going to become more common due to climate change, but to be honest I don't hold out much hope for that.