a little east of reality

Monday, February 09, 2009

life in the sunburnt country

As of this morning there were 31 bushfires raging across the state of Victoria. People in our Melbourne office have lost friends amongst the climbing death toll, currently sitting at 126 and expected to double as fire crews locate more of the dead who failed to escape ahead of the firefront. An estimated 750 homes have already been lost with entire townships burned to ruins.

Bushfire is a constant of the Australian summer. When I went to the coast recently we had to check the morning we left that the highway had not been closed due to the fires burning near that area. On the way back we saw smoke/visibility warnings, but the road was still open. The weather channel has a regular bushfire update. Two days ago there were five fires on the map and that seemed normal.

But every few years things get worse. The last big bushfire disaster was in 2003 when around 500 homes in Canberra were destroyed (one of the major causes why rent is artificially high here). However, just four people died. Significant for their families and friends of course, but statistically a very small number compared to the number of residential homes lost - obviously people evacuated successfully. That isn't what's happening right now. The fires are spread out over a wide area and some people are waiting too long to put their fire plan into action.

Worst still, and the thing I just cannot get my head around, is that not only have several of these fires been deliberately lit, but there are people in some areas going into devastated areas and relighting fires. What the hell could be going through their minds? This is not simple carelessness, or a prank gone wrong. This is people who already know the death toll deliberately trying to widen the field of disaster.

There are just some things that people living in a hot, dry land should never do and wasting water and lighting scrub fires are on the top of the list. Causing death via arson carries a maximum 25-year jail term, and I hope they catch every last one of them.

To end on a brighter note, I heard a story of a shiftworker sleeping through the day who was saved by his cat. The cat jumped on the bed and scratched his hand until he woke up. Then the man heard the commotion outside. He realised what was happening, grabbed the cat, ran outside to jump onto an evacuation vehicle and they both survived the fire. He lost his house, but that's still a happy ending in my book.

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