Sunday, February 08, 2009

Devastation in Australia.

My friend, Kathleen McGuire, who is currently on hiatus in her homeland of Australia, has been telling me about the utter devastation going on down there with wildfires. Tens of thousands of acres spread out over the size of Texas are going up in flames. It's summer down there, reportedly the hottest on record. Here is what she wrote on her Facebook page:

It's hard to describe what it has been like here this weekend. Thankfully none of my immediate family, nor their properties, were harmed. I was in Berwick on the outskirts of Melbourne for most of it. As we tried to stay calm, celebrating my niece's 12th birthday on the hottest day on record here, we started hearing news of the fires. It instantly reminded us of the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983, which were the worst fires Australia had ever seen. Little did we know that the tragic events that were about to unfold would surpass even that devastation.

Here in Berwick the sky started to darken, filled with smoke from fires in different nearby areas to the east and west; the smell was reminiscent of the 'great Aussie barbecue' although not what one would expect on a Total Fire Ban day. Although Berwick itself wasn't harmed, fires burned in neighbouring suburbs Narre Warren and Harkaway and several houses were lost. Pakenham, just 10 minutes further down the highway, set up a relief centre for fire victims fleeing from nearby towns. Family members in Gembrook and Emerald returned home from the birthday lunch. Although we felt it was unlikely that we were at risk, we discussed the situation and decided to pack travel bags with our most precious belongings and leave the area - should evacuation be necessary - rather than staying to protect our homes.

The heat rose during the afternoon and reached 47.6 degrees celsius in parts of the state - that's almost 118 fahrenheit. In my car - without air conditioning - it probably reached 50. I burned my hand, literally, when I accidentally touched the metal of the seat belt buckle.

A cool change was due, which again reminded us of 1983 when the wind changed direction and the town of Cockatoo (just minutes from where my brother now lives in Gembrook) was razed to the ground. 75 people died that day. My uncle fought with the fire brigade for 48 hours and his hair literally turned grey overnight. His feet were blackened from radiant heat from the ground. I'll never forget the look on his face; it was as if he had returned from a war. He lost friends that day, including a truckload of fire brigade buddies, and many of his neighbours lost their homes.

When the cool change came yesterday, I was heading towards the city. There were very few cars on the freeway. The rays of the setting sun poked dramatically through clouds like a cartoon version in a Monty Python episode. I expected God, complete with a flowing white beard, to pop up through the clouds, shaking his head and declaring that this was the end. The sky was eerie, with unusual, billowing clouds formed from a combination of smoke from fires surrounding the city and the incoming cold front. In the distance I could see lights flashing. A minute later, a caravan of a dozen emergency vehicles sped past me on the other side of the freeway heading towards the fires in Gippsland. It was apocalyptic.

Later I would learn that, at this time, the residents of Kinglake - in the other direction, north of Melbourne - were putting into action their fire plans. Many had chosen to stay and defend their homes. They had no idea that an enormous wall of fire was about to engulf their town. Two fires came together as one and quickly turned towards their town unexpectedly. Survivors described what happened, but I have the distinct feeling that only those who were there can really understand the intensity. One man related the fire as an enormous ball that flew down the hill in seconds; others said it was like a tornado or a cyclone. Others said it was raining fire; another said it was like a freight train. They describe the roaring, crackling sounds and intense, radiant heat. A man said that his water tank holding 5000 gallons of water boiled. Residents who sought refuge in Jacuzzis or water tanks perished.

Many residents realised it was too late to save their homes so they got into their cars to flee. Some escaped but others perished. Carloads of families were incinerated. Burn victims are in the hospitals. Many survivors had so little warning, they have nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

News reader Brian Naylor - whom I met years ago at the Koo Wee Rup Potato Festival when I was playing in a band - was a lead reporter in 1983 at the fires. He and his wife died today in Kinglake.

The cold front caused more damage than good. Barely a millimeter of rain fell, but the thunderous clouds produced lightning that generated more fires. The north of the state dropped only slighting in temperature on Sunday and the searing heat and high winds continued for another day.

What is hard to describe to those not from Australia is the vastness of the areas that have been burned. The fire commissioner reported that there were 450 fires burning; so far 330,000 hectares have been burned, and more than 700 houses lost. For those of you in the US, Victoria is about the size of Texas, I think. Imagine if fires broke out simultaneously near Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Wichita Falls. And then gale force winds blew embers so that new fires erupted 30 miles away. And lightning ignited more, inaccessible fires in remote national parks in other parts of the state. The walls of flame are miles across and 15 stories high, moving at gale force speed. That gives you an idea of the scope of the devastation.

Entire towns were enveloped by fire. From what I understand, Kinglake, Kinglake West, Marysville and Wandong are decimated. Fires are still burning out of control and are expected to continue for days.

As a distraction on Sunday, I took my 9-year-old nephew to a nearby sports store. In the car en route, we listened to ABC radio's updates on the fire. At the store, he bought a $10 item and said he would pay me back with his allowance. He also remarked that he'd like to make a donation to help the fire victims. I suggested he might do that instead of paying me back the $10 he owed.

A few hours later, at my sister's home, my nephew set about doing chores (somewhat uncharacteristically - he's a 9-year-old boy, after all), including picking up dog poop in the yard. My sister and I were bemused by this, especially since there was an international one-day cricket match on TV, and asked him about it. He said he wanted to earn more money from chores. I had completely forgotten about our earlier conversation. He then told his mother that he wanted to earn the money so that he could send it in for the fire victims.

It saddens me that it takes a disaster for us to be reminded that people are essentially good. The "experts" are telling us that this weekend's tragedy is just the beginning - that global warming and climate changes will lead to more such catastrophes. I just hope that our human capacity for compassion and selflessness will somehow save us from ourselves.
I just cannot believe there has been so little, if any coverage of this in the United States.
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