Australia wonders how to cope with future bushfiresFebruary 17th, 2009 - 2:17 pm ICT by IANS
Sydney, Feb 17 (IANS) While Australia is desperately seeking reasons for the demonic bushfires which singed Victoria on Black Saturday, some ominous signs have emerged.
The early morning of Black Saturday, a hot, dry wind was already blowing hard and the mercury was climbing rapidly. With forecasts in the mid-40s Celsius, fire-fighters and authorities had reason to fear for the safety of the rural community - in the face of many previous bushfires. Ash Wednesday had taken 80 lives in 1983.
The official death toll this time is 181 but is expected to climb much higher as the police and army sift through the razed homes in their search for human remains and plausible clues to the reasons for the 400 blazes which raged across Victoria Feb 7. The number of houses destroyed had soared to 1,831 according to Emergency Service Commissioner Bruce Esplin. Land in excess of 4,000 square kilometres has turned into a wasteland for now and approximately 7,500 people are rendered homeless.
The University of Sydney’s Adam Marks has spent more than 30 years researching the Victorian forests that burned on Black Saturday. He has studied 1983’s Ash Wednesday. “I have never seen weather and other conditions as extreme as they were on Saturday,” he writes.
“The weather was unprecedented. We live in a land shaped by fire but as a society we are still learning about the full impact of major bushfires across a whole range of ecological and biological systems.”
The loss to the native Australian flora and fauna is gigantic and could also be irreversible in some cases. The same could also be said about the wildlife.
Some environmentalists believe that the recent fires in Victoria were nothing but global warming manifesting itself in its most destructive form and Australia should get used to such ruthless acts of nature.
Could more have been done to warn residents about oncoming fires? The main killer in the Black Saturday fires was their extreme speed.
While environmentalists and scientists collate data about the rising mercury and dwindling rainfall, the government strategists have also been jolted over the hotly-debated failure of one of the mainstays in Australian fire fighting strategy - stay-and-defend your property or leave early.
The high-country town of Marysville had to endure the worst as it was reduced to ashes by the inferno which, backed by furious winds, burnt everything down in its path.
But why did the fires take place? One commentator wrote that the recent bushfires in Victoria were the direct outcome of “combustible fusion of nature’s excess with man’s shortcomings”.
Australia has responded in a predictably generous manner. The relief machinery is in full swing. An army of relief workers and volunteers is trying to comfort the survivors in various camps. Hundreds of millions dollars have already been collected by the aid agencies even as the survivors mull class action against the state government and energy companies.
The politicians have also pushed their differences aside to come together to recognise the enormity of the disaster and by agreeing to do “whatever it takes” to get the affected communities back on their collective feet at the earliest.
The television images of the tearful Victorian Premier John Brumby delivering a dismal judgement on the catastrophe will linger long in public memory. A similar image of a crestfallen Kevin Rudd uncharacteristically left speechless only to deliver a scathing verdict on suspected arsonists has also become a part of television lore.
The Australian prime minister had earlier announced: “Together we’ll rebuild each of these communities - brick by brick, school by school, community hall by community hall.”
The message would have been heard with rapt attention by the bushfire survivors from two sizeable towns - Kinglake and Marysville.
While Kinglake residents are reportedly suing the energy company for being responsible for igniting the fires thanks to a fallen power cable, Victoria Police have confirmed that it was conducting an arson and murder investigation into the Marysville fire. A former volunteer fire-fighter has been arrested.
In the long term, it may be more important to answer another question - should Australia change its policy that has so far encouraged householders to have a fire plan and to stay to defend their properties, or to leave well in time. Black Saturday survivors feel that the policy does not do enough to secure their properties.
In the face of changing weather patterns and soaring temperatures, this complaint may be heard more and more often.
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