In a burned land

February 13, 2009 – In a burned land

Friday the 13th in Western Australia. Another joyous day for Robin and me. Another day of nightmares and loss for victims of Victoria’s bush fires.

Drought is no stranger in this dry land, but bushfires this extensive and this severe are rare. On the seventh of February, with temperatures reaching historic highs and winds blowing out of the country’s hot center, circumstances collided into the perfect firestorm. With flames roaring through valleys and racing up hills, with winds suddenly shifting directions, many had little warning a hungry orange monster was headed their way.

Nearly a week after the fires began, most are out, though Healesville – one of the rural communities we’ve considered as a place to settle – is still on fire watch. [NB. It’s the 18th as I upload, and just yesterday residents were again on alert.] The official death toll is 181 [201 by the 17th]. With hundreds of piles of rubble yet to be combed for bodies, officials expect that toll will rise. Over a thousand homes [now 1800] were burned to the ground. Some five thousand are homeless [now measured at 7000].

Some people died trying to save their homes. Others were burned alive fleeing down roads blocked with trees that had exploded in the intense heat. In the picturesque town of Marysville, one hundred of the five hundred residents perished. Flames traveled so quickly that even hesitating long enough to gather up a few important documents, a few prized possessions was enough to mark some for death.

The fires are a disaster of epic proportions. Individuals and families are rising phoenix-like out of the ashes, but the rebuilding will take months, perhaps years. Australians are opening their hearts and their pockets. Contributions have already amounted to close to a hundred million dollars, with money continuing to pour in. Truckloads of goods have been contributed to survivors. Skilled workers are signing up to rebuild destroyed houses. One man whose house was spared has already welcomed five families into his home and expects to welcome fifteen to twenty families in caravans on his property, for as long as it takes them to rebuild.

Some officials are calling for policies that prevent expansion of rural communities and purchase of hobby farms. They write that infrastructure costs and fire danger make such settlements foolhardy and a drain on personal and collective coffers.

They are right. We humans do insist on disrupting the natural world and eventually pay the consequences. We build on flood plains and in fire zones and are amazed when water or fire overtakes us.

Clearly the increasing numbers of people wanting to live outside of Australia’s handful of urban centres pose a dilemma for future planning. A royal commission will investigate the fires, the response to them, and their aftermath and make recommendations for the future.

We will watch for the report with more interest than we’d have had before coming to Australia. We feel a new connection with the people who chose to live outside Melbourne, who preferred a quieter life than the city offers and a place where they could afford a much nicer home than in the high-priced urban suburbs.

The 2009 Victoria bushfires exploded out of a coming together of long-term drought, an intense heat wave, and expanding rural populations (not to mention some land policies that will need to be examined). Will the royal commission find some middle ground between the current laissez-faire policies in terms of rural development and the alternative of making everyone live in concrete enclaves?

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