Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Australian Wildfires: Kindness roars from embers in Victorian bushfires

It is easy to forget how unpopulated Australia is. The entire country counts 21 million citizens.
Police and fire authorities now believe that upwards of 300 people died in the flames. On a comp basis, that would be 4200 Americans.
It appears the fires were deliberately set.

From the [decidedly right-of-center] (Melbourne) HeraldSun:

I COULDN'T give food. Too much had been donated already.

I was turned away from the Blood Bank. The queues are so long I was told to come back next week.

I could only give money, and tens of thousands of you have done that, too.

What an avalanche of help. Have your fellow Victorians ever shown themselves to be so good?

Our pain now is terrible. The loss immense. But this much we now know to our consolation: A fire can destroy our towns, but not our community.

In fact, never have I seen so many people so desperately eager to lend a hand. My God, but we are strong.

In these days no one walks taller than a volunteer of the Country Fire Authority, of course.

But see how many other of our institutions have rushed to help, too.

Our politicians, so unfairly mocked when all is well and we can afford to quarrel, have been brilliant. Premier John Brumby in particular has shown not just leadership, despite worries for his own property and family, but the compassion that's too often hidden.

OUR police are there in force, of course, and never has Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon's busy warmth seemed so right.

Everywhere you turned, there were people rallying for the victims. ABC radio instantly turned itself into a 24-hour service for Victorians desperate to know about the fires or their missing relatives, or wanting to organise help or issue warnings. 3AW did the same, and became a place where people could talk over their fears, and reach each other....MORE

Here are a couple Op-Ed pieces from [the decidedly left-of-center] The Australian:

AUSTRALIA is a fire continent: it is built to burn. To this general combustibility its southeast corner adds a pattern of seasonal winds, associated with cold fronts, that draft scorching, unstable air from the interior across whatever flame lies on the land. At such times the region becomes a colossal channel that fans flames which, for scale and savagery, have no equal on earth.

Yet even by Australia's standards, Saturday's fires were a horror, which is saying much. Australia has filled the weekly calendar with Red Tuesdays, Ash Wednesdays, Black Thursdays, and is having to re-number its sequels. There was a Black Saturday on February 12, 1977, but Black Saturday II is a bad bushfire on steroids.

It is not an alien visitation. It is a recurring nightmare - at times worse, at times less savage. Australians seem unable to do anything but fight and flee, and curse and console.

Yet for those of us who have long admired Australia's resolve in the face of conflagrations and regarded it as a world leader for the calibre of its fire sciences and bushfire brigades, the recent spectacle arouses dismay.

What saddens many of us is that Australia knows better. It developed many key concepts of fire ecology and models of bushfire behaviour. It pioneered landscape-scale prescribed burning as a method of bushfire management. It devised the protocol for structure protection in the bush, especially the ingenious stratagem of leaving early or staying, preparing and defending. In recent decades it has beefed up active suppression capabilities and emergency services.

Almost uniquely, Australia seemed to have gotten the basics right, certainly better than the muscle-bound, paramilitary response of North America. That approach only set up an ecological insurgency that summer surges of hardware and firefighters could never quell. Americans looked to Australia as a kindred country that knew how to replace feral fire with tame fire.

Yet Australia keeps enduring the same Sisyphean cycle of calamitous conflagrations in the same places. It isn't translating what it knows into its practices. It seems to be abandoning its historic solutions for the kind of telegenic suppression operations and political theatre that have failed elsewhere. Even when controlled burning is accepted in principle, there always seems a reason not to burn in this place or at this time. So the burning gets outsourced to lightning, accident and arson.

It's too early to identify the particulars behind the latest catastrophe. But it's likely that investigation will point to the same culprits, perhaps aggravated by climate change and arson. Both are relevant, but both are potential distractions.

Global warming might magnify outbreaks, but it would mean a change in degree, not in kind; and its effects must in any case be absorbed by the combustible cover.

Arson can put fire in the worst place at the worst time, but its power depends on the capacity to spread and to destroy susceptible buildings....MORE


...I have been a bushfire scientist for more than 50 years, dealing with all aspects of bushfires, from prescribed burning to flame chemistry, and serving as supervisor of fire weather services for Australia. We need to understand what has happened so that we can accept or prevent future fire disasters.

That this disaster was about to happen became clear when the weather bureau issued an accurate fire weather forecast last Wednesday, which prompted me, as a private citizen, to raise the alarm through a memo distributed to concerned residents.

The science is simple. A fire disaster of this nature requires a combination of hot, dry, windy weather in drought conditions. It also requires a source of ignition. In the past, this purpose has been served by lightning. In this disaster, lightning has not played a big part, and for this Victorians should be grateful. But other sources of ignition are ever-present. When the temperature and wind increase to extreme levels, small events -- perhaps the scrape of metal across a rock, a transformer overheating or sparks from a diesel engine -- are capable of starting a fire that can in minutes become unstoppable if the fuel is present.

The third and only controllable factor in this deadly triangle is fuel: the dead leaves, pieces of bark and grass that become the gas that feeds the 50m high flames that roar through the bush with the sound of jet engines.

Fuels build up year after year at an approximate rate of one tonne a hectare a year, up to a maximum of about 30 tonnes a hectare. If the fuels exceed about eight tonnes a hectare, disastrous fires can and will occur. Every objective analysis of the dynamics of fuel and fire concludes that unless the fuels are maintained at near the levels that our indigenous stewards of the land achieved, then we will have unhealthy and unsafe forests that from time to time will generate disasters such as the one that erupted on saturday....MORE

We had better start controlled burns in California, now.