Firebugs or Natural Disasters or… ?

Theories are beginning to be mooted about the causes of the Victorian Bushfire Disaster, and whilst they are many and varied it appears nearly all contain an element of ‘truth’ about them that could explain just what went so horribly wrong.

To make it a little simplet. it’s useful to look at the situation in several section; what started the fires; what fed the fires; what allowed them to grown out of control; and why did so many people die?

To begin with, there had been a warning of desperately hot weather for a week before the fires started. The eventual temperature rose to 46.6ºC – the hottest day in Melbourne on record. We’ve heared reports of ‘static electricity storms’ with strikes that might have started spot fires. There were claims that abandoned and broken glass bottles might have started one or more. Also that cigarette butts were involved. The rapid spread of the fies in the area surrounding Maryville and elsewhere suggested deliberate arson.

So far there is no confirmation of any of those theories. One man has been arrested on suspicion of causing the fires surrounding Maryville, but until we hear full details nobody can be sure what happened. He has been moved out of state to protect him until he is brought to trial.

Regardless of how the fires started, once lit there was a chain of events that made the resultant disaster inevitable.

Australian trees such as Eucalypts are oily by nature. The reason the Blue Mountains were given their name was because of the faint haze the oil produces in the sky as it evaporates. In the USA they are known as ‘Gasoline Trees’ because of the way they ‘explode’  when alight. This oily nature ensures that despite being ‘evergreen’, when their leaves drop as they do periodically they don’t immediately rot as happens with deciduous trees. As with pine trees, they form a thick layer around the base of the trees which serves to prevent any other tree growing in competition. In addition they normally grow by shedding their outer layer of bark. The result is that a thick volatile layer builds up rapidy under the trees.

That this is a ready source of fuel for fires has been well known for a long time and disaster mitigation programs established that a maximum ‘safe’ level of this type of litter is roughly 3 – 5 tonnes per acre. Ideally, in order to control the increase, regular ‘back-burning’ of forest areas is carried out under controlled conditions.

In Victoria, the ‘Green Lobby’ has successfully managed to control the agenda regarding ‘backburing in and around state forests such that the activity has been drastically curtailed. The result was that litter in those areas increased from a ‘moderate’ 3 – 5 tonnes per acre… to 20 – 30 tonnes per acre!!

Now add other environmental ‘lifestyle policies’ that serve to prohibit housholders from removing trees further away from their homes than 6 metres… whereas 150 metres in considered to be ‘reasonable in other states… and imagine houses sitting *under* eucalypts, which as we’ve already can be virtual timebombs waiting to go off.  Now add to this the Australian penchant for growing large eucalypts along the edges of roads in order to help shield pedestrians from sunburn, and drivers et al from the sun’s glare.

Finally, there were gale force winds blowing through the area. The wind was obviously to be a large factor in spreading the flames, embers and the thick black choking smoke.

The scene is set. All that was needed was for the sparks to be set and hell exploded.

Regardless how the fires started their spread, once alight, was irresistable. The heat had dried out the litter to tinder and thousands of tonnes of this tinder dry inflammable material began to be devoured.

Initially this seemed no worse than any other bush fire, bad yes, possibly dangerous… but there was no suggestion it might have been worse for the loss of human life than any ‘normal’ year. Instructions were sent out to the residents of the area telling them to follow ‘normal procedure’ for bushfires, i.e. to stay home, prepare for the fire to arrive, ‘flare over them, and move on leaving them with the task of rushing back out with houses, mops and buckets to douse any spot fires thus saving their peroprty from destruction.

However the conditions these fires began under was *not* normal. People who took every precaution suggested were still overwhelmed and died in their homes. Those who realised the scale of the impending disaster and fled found smoke filled roads littered with burning trees blocking their escape. Fires raging with temperatures in excess of 2000ºC overtook them at speeds above 150 kph and there was no escape.

People died in their homes, people died on foot trying to run to safety, people died in cars, in dams, in water filled baths… there was nothing anyone could do in the face of a fire of this magnitude. Whole towns were burned to the ground taking with them the residents who had bravely stayed to fight the blaze.

With the scale of the death and destruction still being assessed the reality still overawes. Day by day stories are emerging of the horrors some people went through. In one home nine people were found huddled over the body of a baby. All had died in their futile attempt to save its life. 

I think the point of this post was to explain that the reasons for the disaster were many and varied… but simply blaming ‘a firebug’, or ‘ alightening strike’ or ‘green policies’ is too simplistic. It was perhaps a combination of all these factors that resulted in the worst known peacetime disaster ever to hit Australia but it probably brings home once and for all that we are going to have to face a decision between life… and lifestyle. We simply *cannot* ‘trust’ the bush and as global warming takes a firmer hold, conditions can only worsen. Decision need to be taken now to encourage people to clear far more trees from around their properties and forgo the pleasure inherent in living close to nature.

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