By Linda Mottram
And now the inferno of the weekend of February 7, 2009, has again illustrated Australia’s vulnerability to fire.
Searing flames are a requirement for the continuity of some Australian plant species, which have evolved rock-hard seed pods as protection in the difficult environment.
Traditionally, Australia’s indigenous people turned fire to their benefit, fundamentally changing large swathes of the landscape with their controlled burns.
Fire has also been the great, constant companion haunting Australia’s modern populations, the backdrop to many Australians lives from childhood to old age. Natural bushfires are seared into Australian memories, as are the fires started by electrical sparks and those that are deliberately lit in utter disregard for the consequences in the windy heat of the Australian summer.
Some of the fiercest to leave an indelible mark on Australia’s history include Ash Wednesday in Victoria and New South Wales in February 1983 when 75 people died, and Tasmania’s Black Tuesday of 1967 which left 62 dead. Further back there was Black Friday on January 13, 1939, also in Victoria, when 71 people perished. Many other fires have cut swathes through forests and properties over the years, leaving an almost countless toll in dead wildlife and farm stock.
And now, worse than any other such fire disaster, with well over 170 dead, the inferno of the weekend of February 7 and 8, 2009, has again illustrated Australia’s vulnerability to fire.
While these fires are already the worst in Australia’s history, officials are bracing themselves for the toll to grow, while debate has already begun on whether Australians get the best advice on how to respond to big fires.
Whole communities in Victoria have been obliterated, leaving not only a vast job of reconstruction to be eventually contemplated but more immediately requiring experts to sift through the remains.
Many areas remain unsafe for assessment and rescue teams long after fires have passed. In addition, a large number of fires continue to burn, posing a potential threat to even more communities.
The disaster is sapping enormous resources. Various experts from other Australian states are converging on Victoria to help, particularly with the forensic and investigative tasks.
The federal government has sent in the army to assist. As well as providing emergency bedding and other basic provisions for fire survivors, and taking heavy lift equipment into devastated zones to remove debris, the military is also expected to provide experts trained in body identification.
The prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has visited some of the survivors of the fires. He and other political leaders have been visibly moved by what they have seen. The state premier of Victoria was moved to tears while talking to the media about the situation. Mr Rudd was also been clearly shaken by the extent of the disaster.
But Mr Rudd has used the occasion to highlight one of the more uplifting phenomena of Australian disasters – the enormous effort of Australia’s emergency services, both paid and volunteer. At least 4,000 trained volunteers have been working as part of the response to the Victorian fires.
Their tasks though are far from pleasant.
“Bear a thought today for all those people who are anxious and frightened as each of these houses is searched,” Mr Rudd said.
“Bear a thought in mind today also for the individuals who are charged with the responsibility, be they from the army or the police, to search each of these homes and each of these communities.”
“This is an awful task but as a nation we’re going to come through this and we’re going to come through it stronger,” Mr Rudd said.
The prime minister has also been very pointed about arsonists as police investigate suspicions that some of the lethal blazes in Victoria and fires burning in other Australian states were deliberately lit.
He has described their activities as “mass murder.”
In New South Wales, one man has been arrested on arson charges and the state premier has warned that the state will “throw the book” at anyone found guilty of deliberately starting fires.
The disaster in Victoria comes as the government works to get parliamentary approval for a $42 billion stimulus package to try to stave off recession.
A parliamentary inquiry is examining the package, which contains big spending for infrastructure works that may come to benefit the communities in Victoria that have been razed by the fires.
Federal parliament was scheduled to meet but will suspend usual business for a day in recognition of the Victorian disaster.
Discussion has already begun in Canberra about other key issues relating to the handling of the bushfire threat in Australia.
In particular, questions are being raised again about forest management, an issue that polarizes activist forest management advocates and the environmental movement.
And the federal attorney general has acknowledged that there needs to be a new debate about the best advice to give Australians about when to stay and defend their homes and when to leave in the face of often unpredictable bushfires.
In the meantime, the massive flag that flies atop the federal parliament building in the nation’s capital flies at half mast – a mark of respect for the vanquished and the unpredictable power of the Australian environment.