Saturday, February 14, 2009

Australian fires, Feb. 14 update

Stay and defend--not like previous fires

An article in The Australian tells an interesting story about the culture of "Prepare, Stay and Defend OR Go Early" in communities like Kinglake, a town of 1,500. They have been through fires before and many residents say that it can be fun, clearing leaves from the roof and stomping out embers in the yard while they listen to a cricket match on the radio. Some of them make sure they have "slabs of beer" and plenty of rum and coke on hand. Last Saturday they were looking forward to watching the show as the fire approached.

But this time it was different:
That was the atmosphere up at Kinglake at 5pm on Saturday, as the temperature hit 43C. Talking to people in Kinglake this week, it's clear that the Black Saturday bushfire took them by surprise. Witnesses said it had been situation normal about 5pm, and hell on earth an hour later.

Flames ripped through the town, taking one property after another and fire plans collapsed like so many houses of cards. People who thought they were going to stay and defend started backpedalling like crazy, running out to their cars in the heat and the smoke, trying desperately to get down the mountain.

They tore out of their driveways in a shower of gravel -- it's all unsealed roads here -- and skidded on to the main street. In the terror and confusion they slammed into trees, and each other. Some took shelter in their kitchens where they huddled under tables, covered in wet towels and blankets, as the inferno roared towards them.

In Kinglake, about 40 people died. About half were on Bald Spur Road, which backs on to the national park. Another 10, probably, were on the roads. Victims included at least seven children.

The fire passed quickly, but survivors didn't start coming down the mountain until Sunday. Most had to hitch a ride with the fire brigade because their cars were gone.

The look on their faces was hard to describe. There was terror in their wide eyes; a look of disbelief. They were filthy, most of them with burns on the soles of their feet. Their clothes stank of smoke; their faces were smudged and teary. One after the other was taken by the arm by a Red Cross volunteer, or a Salvation Army worker, who took them to First Aid and then into the relief centre so they could clean up.
Power company to be sued for starting fire

Police have seized portions of a power line and a pole during an investigation of the cause of the fire that burned through Kinglake, Steels Creek, and St. Andrews, killing more than 100 people and destroying about 1,000 homes. The powerline belongs to Singapore-owned electricity company SP AusNet, which is responsible for maintaining most of the power lines in eastern Victoria.

The taskforce named "Phoenix" is examining a 2-kilometer section of the powerline that snapped during the strong winds and record heat on Black Saturday.

A class action lawsuit will be filed on the behalf of farmers, small business owners, tourist operators and residents who lost their homes.

In other developments:
  • The residents of Marysville, a town that was virtually wiped out by fire, were allowed to see the remains of their town from the windows of three busses as they drove through the destruction yesterday. They were not allowed to leave the coaches.
  • All but 12 fires are now under control, according to the Department of Sustainability and Environment.
  • At times the triple-0 phone line was going unanswered during the crisis, preventing people from reporting new fires.
  • Two U.S. fire weather meteorologists are assisting the Australians. In fact, due to a cooperative agreement previously in place, Brent Wachter of the Albuquerque, N.M. weather forecast office and Daniel Borsum of the Billings, Mont., office were already in Australia when the latest wildfires began last weekend.
  • A man was arrested on Friday and charged with crimes including arson and possessing child pornography. He is accused of starting the Churchill fire, which killed 21 people. Police are not disclosing the location where he is being held, fearful of vigilante activity. The prime minister has previously said that people who intentionally started the fires should "rot in jail". It is possible that the arsonists could be charged with murder.
  • The death toll still officially stands at 181, but that number is expected to climb as officials sift through the remains of structures and burned vehicles.
  • The United States is sending two Burned Area Emergency Response teams, one 20-person hot shot crew, and 15 fire specialists and managers to Australia in support of their wildfire situation. On Thursday we had more details about this assignment.

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