NFR: Australian Wildfires

wadin' boot

Donny, you're out of your element...
Many of you may have heard about the Australian wildfires that occurred last weekend. Last Saturday's Victorian fires were the worst in terms of fatalities in the country's history. Ten years of drought and a large fuel load combined with horrific weather led to a major disaster with around 180 people dead. The towns of Marysville and Kinglake were obliterated, at least 1800 homes have burned.

It's worth understanding a little about this event in part because the conventional wisdom in Australia was to either stay and protect your house with your garden hose, or, if you were in a car, to stay in it if the fire front was advancing at a pace you could not outrun in a vehicle. Mandatory evacuations were not part of standard practice, in part because in the bush the population density is such that you really are likely to be on your own, despite a large network of volunteer fire brigades. Given you made that choice to live or go there and that fires occur naturally and cyclically, there is an understanding that you know the risks of being there vs. the benefits of saving your home.

That conventional wisdom failed this year. Several things contributed. There was intense heat, on February 7th the high temperature in Melbourne some 70 miles south of the fires was 115 degrees, a record high capping a week of weather above 100 degrees and a decade of drought conditions. Humidity was extremely low. The high pressure system driving that heat wave came off the Indian ocean, itself a generator of El Nino style weather patterns for Australia. That high was then tempered in the vast Central desert of Australia, a place of rock and sand and little else some 2000 miles wide, and pushed towards the southeast corner of Australia. 40mph winds associated with an oncoming frontal change, blew the fires through longstanding collection of scrub and biomass that had not been cleared or burned in the natural (or backburned) fire cycles of every 5-7 years or so. Eucalypt embers were carried aloft, miles ahead of the fire front. For Jeff Master's Wunderground overview of meteorological conditions on that day this entry is worth reading. In the reports I've read, it is not altogether clear that there were obvious fronts.

Some of the criticism for the fire fatalities and destruction is directed towards building codes that in the last twenty years have restricted clearing of forest and scrub surrounding properties. It would be fair to say the State of Victoria's building codes as they pertain to fires are, in general, lax. The last major fatality fires occurred in 1983 and little changed after those fires in terms of building materials. Of interest, the people that survived in their homes did so while their homes were burning around them. They were unable to leave their houses because it was hotter outside than in their burning homes. They moved from room to room and if they were lucky, either made it out later, after the flames of the surrounding wildfire left, or made it to a safe part of their house- a cellar for instance. Here is a particularly harrowing first-person account. (Unlike in the US, the construction of cellars and basements in Australia is uncommon.)

Of those that chose to flee in their cars, many were incinerated, some even prior to making it to their cars. Those that died in their vehicles were trapped between advancing fire lines ahead and behind them or blocked by cars that had crashed, either into downed trees or other cars. The pictures of burned out hulks of cars, presumably fleeing, are particularly frightening. there was one I can no longer find where cars from different directions were stopped at a four way intersection, burnt out, with a downed tree in the middle of it.

So why's it worth mentioning on a fly-fishing board? Well for a couple of reasons, one is some of these towns were on some nice stocked small water. But perhaps more importantly, the same conditions can happen here. One of my fears has always been getting up into the high country during summer and having a fast moving fire up there too. I figure I would be getting in, all the way in, to the water I am fishing. But the fact remains, it's a chance game you play where common sense will only get you so far. Finally if you care to donate any support, there are links at the bottom of the bushfire's Wikipedia page or through the Australian Red Cross.

It's worth following the story to its conclusion, what will they do about building codes, early warning alarm systems, policies of evacuation? And what will the new wisdom be? And can it be applied here to help all of us?