Thursday, 13 February 2014

The good, the bad and the natural disaster

Hello again lovely people, I've come here tonight with a sad story and some scary photos. For any of you in Australia, you will know that Victoria has spent the past week battling hundreds of bush fires and dealing with the devastation that fire brings. You will also know that last Saturday was the 5 year anniversary of the Black Saturday fires that claimed 173 lives and destroyed 2029 homes. The fact that it was also the day that began the worst rash of bush fires since Black Saturday was just cruel irony.

Just one of the many fires from Black Saturday.

A lot of the fires were very close to the town I live in, and the town I work in, which is just 12 kilometers down the road from my home was shut down completely as fires threatened homes. This town is actually a coal mining town, and there are two power stations in the area, which provide electricity to a large portion of the state of Victoria. Sadly one of these power stations caught fire, as did one of the coal mines. As of writing this post, the coal mine fire is still burning and it will be for a long time to come. This is just a fact of life when you're dealing with coal, and fires in the mines aren't uncommon. Fires of this size are however.

What a burning coal mine looks like.

There is also a paper mill and the plantation which houses the timber for the mill. This too caught fire, causing a lot of damage. Another fire caused by a lightning strike managed to reach the freeway which links my home town and my place of work, which is how the fire got so close to us. They closed the freeway from right before it reaches the opposite end of my town, right up to the next town on the other side of my town of work. That is about 25 kilometers of road that was being threatened. The freeway was closed for two whole days while they fought the fires.

How the world looks when it's totally surrounded by fires.

The thing that saddens me is how many of these fires were deliberately lit. There have been reports of two young gentlemen driving around with lighters and toilet paper starting fires along a stretch of highway in another town nearby, which caused several thousand hectares of bush land to burn down.

Now I mentioned the Black Saturday fires at the beginning, the loss of lives, and the loss of property that it caused. I can remember that day clearly, and it was horrifying. Luckily for us again our town wasn't directly in the line of fire, but we were under ember attack, and I remember watching the debris fall down from the sky as the wind carried it over to us from surrounding towns. When it rained in the afternoon that day, the rain was black as the water mixed with the ash and soot in the air. The sky glowed orange all day and the atmosphere was suffocating. Back in 2009 our emergency systems were basic at best. There was no efficient way to relay information to people in danger and part of this is the reason why Black Saturday was so devastating. There was an inquest after the dust had settled, and the next few years were spent creating new ways to inform residents of current fire activity and impending danger. This included of course a Facebook page (where would we be without Facebook?) and a new emergency services website with constant updates which tells us exactly where in the country there are fires, and what it means for people in surrounding areas.

What the website looked like on Saturday. The red triangles mean get out now, the orange triangles mean be alert.

It is sad that it took a widespread tragedy to let people know that we needed a system like this, but hopefully the changes that have been made will mean that we never have a repeat of Black Saturday ever again. If this past week is anything to go by the changes are certainly positive. So far we have had one loss of life due to bush fire this year, which is a huge difference to the 173 lives that were lost in 2009. 

So now the rebuilding begins. Teams have already started cleaning up the freeway, and although it looks like a barren wasteland now with nothing but charred trees lining the roads, in a few weeks the green will start growing back and the trees will heal like they do every time there is a fire. The people will heal too. We're used to fires, we do live in the country after all. And as soon as the smoke finally clears we'll all be able to breathe a little bit easier. 

This is what we're breathing in at the moment.

I would like to take a minute to give a huge thank you to the heroic members of the Country Fire Association and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade who have come all the way down from Melbourne to help us fight these fires. Without these fearless men and women I'm sure this story would have a different ending. This includes the people working in the command centres, organising the information updates and making sure everyone knows how to stay safe.

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