The fire

Black Thursday, February 6th 1851 by William Strutt (detail)

I don't have anything deep or moving to say about the bushfires which destroyed several towns on the north-east edge of Melbourne on Saturday (try here instead). Everyone I know is (I think) safe, which is the first thing to say, but beyond that ... the official death toll is currently 181, but is sure to go higher. Many have suffered burns. Many more have lost their homes. A temporary morgue has been set up, and tent villages are springing up in nearby towns. I don't know what I can say about all that. What I guess I can and perhaps should do is put the disaster in some sort of historical context. It's what I did for New Orleans and London, so let's see if I can do it for my home town.

Bushfires are an annual event in southern Australia. We've had bad ones before: Ash Wednesday (1983), Black Friday (1939), Black Thursday (1851). (The above image is a detail from William Strutt's massive 1864 painting Black Thursday, February 6th 1851.) Most are started by natural causes (such as lightning), some by arsonists, if you can believe it. Every summer we hear the warnings, and with global warming we can likely expect more frequent and more dangerous fires. Sydney had a close shave in 2001; Canberra had it worse in 2003. The current one is the worst of them all.

We've had more than a decade of drought already, so the countryside is very, very dry. A heatwave last week (three consecutive days over 40 degrees) primed the situation; then Melbourne's highest temperature ever was recorded on Saturday (46.4 degrees) and with it came very strong winds. A firestorm swept through and over towns like Marysville and Kinglake with very little warning; but even those who were prepared often did not survive. The standard advice is stay or go: that is, decide to stay put and defend your house, or decide to go, and go early. Don't dither, decide on one or the other and stick to it. But the firefront moved so fast and was so intense that people didn't have time to leave in good order, nor were they able to effectively protect their properties. Some panicked and tried to flee when the fire bore down on them; apparently a number of bodies have been found in burned out cars.

This inevitably reminds me of 1945, or 1941 or 1937, of responses to the danger of bombing. Evacuation was one such response then, as it is now to the threat of bushfires. Householders were given advice on how best to defend against fire. The CFA is somewhat analogous to the AFS, both volunteer, part-time firefighting organisations. Even air-raid shelters are making a comeback. Half a century ago and more, it seems that the use of dugouts as fire refuges was fairly widespread (though with mixed success). There's some talk of reviving the practice, with updated technology, and I think there's a lot to be said for the idea. It also seems that stay-or-go is to be reviewed. Maybe it will be changed into just go, or stay-in-a-shelter.

And the firestorm makes me think of Tokyo or Hamburg. The casualties are far lower, of course, but then so are the population densities. (Is there a danger that one of these bushfires could penetrate deep into a big city like Melbourne? Perhaps, but there is far less combustible fuel -- meaning dead eucalyptus leaves and the like -- lying around in urban areas, so my guess is they'd progress much more slowly.) I saw a photo somewhere of a man standing beside his burnt-out car; there were silvery rivulets on the ground which was where molten metal had flowed from it. Some people spoke of getting into baths and spas when the fire came by. That made me shudder when I recalled those who had been boiled alive when sheltering in water tanks in Dresden. It's not the same but I guess these images and ideas are part of my intellectual toolkit now and they're some of the things I use to make sense of the world.

Please consider making a donation for the relief of the bushfire victims through the Australian Red Cross.

Image source: State Library of Victoria.

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4 thoughts on “The fire

  1. JDK

    Good post Brett. It's the topic of conversation and action across Victoria. While the good deeds can't bring those lost back, they can help with as lot else. We are doing what we can.

  2. That 1851 picture is a great reminder that this goes far back into our colonial history. From some of the survivor accounts, it seems that people were sometimes trapped between a burning house and a burning landscape and then tried to escape in their cars. I am not sure that all of those terrible burnt vehicles with the incident tape on them come from people who planned to go but left it too late.

    Interesting too that the announcement of a Royal Commission is a repeat of 1939 - the Stretton Commission was in the field just three weeks after the fire.

  3. Post author


    I'm not sure I take your meaning. Pretty much by definition they left it too late, since there was obviously some earlier point in time when they could have escaped to safety. The question is would they or perhaps could they (given the incredible speed of the firefront) have known by that point that they should have left?

  4. The picture is shifting now, but I guessed then that some people who died trying to escape never intended to go. They wanted to fight but the house caught fire completely and they were trapped.

    But now we are hearing more and more stories about people who simply didnt know it was coming, or who were overwhelmed by the speed. And something went badly wrong with the communications system.

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