Friday, February 6, 2009

Bush Fires (much sadder than when Bush got Fired!)

I posted the below last Friday, the day before temperatures in Melbourne soared to 118 (F) and, along with wind gusts of over 60 MPH, created the conditions that have led to Australia's most devastating natural disaster in history.

I've heard from many of you checking on me and want to assure all that the city of Melbourne is safe from the fires. The closest ones rage about 90 KM away. The wind is keeping the smoke out of town as well so if I never listened to the radio or watched TV, I might not know about the infernos all around.

But for the sadness. As I write this, the death toll has climbed to 181 and with dozens missing and many in hospital with severe burns, is expected to still rise. As Americans, we think of our recent tragedies like 9-11 and Katrina and the casualties were in the 1000's. But remember, Australia has less then 10% of the population of the US, so these are significant numbers. Over 1030 homes have been lost and entire towns wiped out. A small town near where Adi and I hiked just 2 weeks ago doesn't have single structure left standing. Another town of 200 lost over 30% of its population.

The people I know have been lucky. One woman I work with has been in a motel since Saturday evening but her house, as far as she can tell, has survived...but is still threatened. I have 2 friends who hail from "the country" and both of their families have been spared, though they know people who have lost property, and friends of friends who have lost their lives.

How did this happen? At first, my American view was that they must not understand forest fires the way we Americans do.But Australians have been dealing with bush fires forever, so that answer didn't really resonate with me. People living in the bush all have fire plans in place. Many homes have fire pumps that pull water from the ground to wet their house and property. The general rule of thumb is leave early or don't leave at all.

What made these fires unique was the unpredictability of the wind coupled with the fast movement of the fire. A wall of flames is reported to have travelled over 50KM(about 31 miles) in less then 15 minutes. So people didn't have the time to get out. Others who planned to stay and protect their homes panicked, especially when the heat from the fire caused many of the pumps to fail or was so intense that their well-protected homes exploded. Many who tried to flee got lost in the thick smoke and ended up driving over embankments and into other cars. Survivors are describing their ordeal with raining fire and comparing the sound to standing next to a jet engine, so loud was the roar of the firestorm.

A few days after the tragedy, the fires are starting to be politcizied...the Labor government warned that not enough proscribed buring was taking place, the state government is upset at the Federal government's bureacracy. It is refrershing, however, that relief efforts seem to be in place and both the Victorian Premier and Kevin Rudd, the PM, have been a regular presence.

The sadness permeates everyone here, especially as the police continue to believe arson caused at least some of the fires. Proves you don't need to have guns to have sociopaths.
The Age, the Melbourne paper, has a gallery where people have posted photos of people missing and presumed dead. It is difficult to scroll through without being reminded of the flyers from 9-11. I feel much the same way I did after those aforementioned tragedies in my old country, wanting to help but feeling powerless to do much good. I could donate money (I have) and give blood (I've registered to do so), and of course, I'll do my weekly grocery shopping on Friday, when Coles says they'll donate all profits to the relief effort. I want to do more and suddenly, the $1000's of dollars of education floating around my head seems not particularly useful.

On the radio, I heard the "Sparkies" union- as we call electricians- have over 80 volunteers to help connect generators for people who are living in affected areas. That's just one example of what the community is doing to help. Because of the relative smallness of the community, such efforts can be spearheaded and actually do some good. Individual communities are making specialized pleas for goods they needs torches (don't panic, they don't want to start more fires, they mean flashlights) and batteries, another,towels and wash cloths. Perhaps the most heart wrenching was the appeal I heard this morning. A request for donated suits, which the radio announcer was confused by, until the need was clarified. Men in these communities want suits, not to go to work in, but to attend funerals.

I'll leave you with my more tongue in cheek commentary on the heat we've had lately. Keep OZ in your thoughts.

Forget the blogosphere, it's hot in here!
Where have I been, you ask? I know, I left you stranded in Sydney after telling you it wasn't as good as Melbourne. Apologies all around but I have been hot. Not your run of the mill "its so humid you feel like you're in a sweaty towel all day" kind of south eastern heat. Not your "it's so sticky and disgusting I might throw myself in front of the subway in order to get off this platform" kind of NYC August heat. Not even "how is it this hot in Colorado when it never used to get above 90?" kind of hot. No, I've experienced all of those kinds of hot. As well as the equatorial tropics and the Negev desert, African Savannah's and Boston and RI summers. All unpleasant enough, sure, in their own right. But those kinds of hot are nothing compared to what I lived through last week.

I hesitate to share the experience, fearful that it could cause nightmares in small children and the faint of heart. Last week, Melbourne experienced a record heat wave. We had not one, not two, but over 3 days where the temperatures soared above 40 degrees. Not bad for February, you might think, its been much colder here. Yes, but you have your C's and F's mixed up. 44 degrees, which it hit all three days, is perfectly pleasant in Fahrenheit. A nice day for spring skiing, not a bad winter's evening walking around town if you're rugged up properly. But traipse back 3 letters in the alphabet and suddenly 44 is a whole different hemisphere. It equals approximately 111.

Now, its been a while since I wrote about my little May-Z car, which is doing just fine. The only problem is this little hand-me-down lacks air conditioning. Pair that with a hot car park at my office with nary a tree in sight and the end of the day is excruciating. I found myself seeking out trucks so their exhaust could blow a refreshing breeze through my hair. Our flat, also a/c free, is on the top floor of a brick building and thus, retains heat more effectively than the broken oven I lived with for 2 years at Edinboro Dr. Our fruit basket became a living homage to time-lapse photography as bananas, onions and potatoes ripened and rotted in minutes.

True, it wasn't overly humid. But for all those who think its not the heat its the humidity I say, why not plan your next holiday for your oven. That's a dry heat too, but you wouldn't want to hang out in it!

There was one shining spot (be careful the shine can get hot!) during this half week from, literal, hell. Our friends Maria and Jeremy happened to be away at a conference in Canberra. Before leaving, Maria, unsolicited no less, offered us their keys, "just in case it gets hot" because they have a/c in their bedroom. We thanked them and I figured we would probably not take them up on their kind offer. Turns out they couldn't have picked a better week to be gone and we did our part to raise their electric bills. (And PLEASE don't direct me back to the blog about not using the a/c. I meant not using it when it's 75. At 111, all bets are off and clearly it is us vs. Mother Nature (who can be a bitch)!

So, that is why you haven't yet read about Palm Cove. But that post is being crafted now. I'll get you out of Sydney soon, I promise. Tomorrow is threatening to be another scorcher but the famed "cool change" we've heard so much about it due on Sunday.

Enjoy your snow!

1 comment:

Marilyn said...

SO glad to know that you are ok. My mother and I watched the Australian Open, so I knew about the extreme heat, but these fires are just tragic. I'm happy to know that you and Adi are safe and well. Thanks for keeping us posted!