It started around 11:30 a.m. in Kilmore East, a town just north of Melbourne, Australia. A single, rusted power line snapped, instantly sparking a blaze fanned by a violent north wind. Before the local volunteer fire fighters could pull on their gear, the flames were utterly out of control.
By 2 p.m. a huge dark thundercloud, caused by vaporised sap and the sheer heat, rose 22,000 feet over the mountain ranges northeast of the city. Under that cloud, fleeing in cars or trapped in their houses, people began to die as the fire, with flames hundreds of feet high, roared into communities at 75 miles per hour. Fire tornadoes tore apart buildings.
In one little hamlet, Strathewen, 15 percent of the population was killed instantly, because the air was replaced by burning gases. The fire set fires 20 miles ahead of itself with fireballs and lightning strikes from the thundercloud. That one inferno killed 159 of the 173 who died, and its horror and devastation defined Saturday, February 7, 2009 as Black Saturday.
Avoidable tragedy. Wildfires are a feature of the Australian environment, and it was clear that any blaze that started on Black Saturday would run out of control. The wind was averaging 40 m.p.h. and the temperature in the Melbourne area was 118
The state premier of Victoria was on TV and radio all day Friday, warning people of the extreme hazard. But that was all. Residents were simply told to leave early or stay and defend their homes. What was not made clear was that, on Black Saturday, staying meant certain death in some places.
Many people in the new leafy developments on the city fringes are under 30, or recent immigrants. They had no idea of the coming peril. Even the government-appointed Commission of Inquiry into the February bush fires admits this in its just-published first report, which harshly criticized emergency service bureaucrats.
The climate has changed. Melbourne once had a Mediterranean climate, much like San Francisco. But it’s been 11 years since this part of the country had rainfall consistent with the historic average. A decade ago the city’s fountains were turned off as a temporary measure to save water. They are still dry. Most of the state’s irrigators have no water allocation.
Increasing dryness has the effect of making the wildfire situation dire. Fewer days are available for fuel reduction burning. Dry forests burn more easily, as the raging fires on the edge of Los Angeles attest in the U.S. After Melbourne’s February inferno, the government is scrambling to catch up with the reality of extreme weather events like Black Saturday. A readiness it could long ago have implemented.
This summer’s fire season will be worse than last, and the nearby hills are tinder dry. Three quarters of a million people live there, and if a fire catches hold, the disaster will surely dwarf last February’s.
Denial and neglect. Forests eventually catch fire. That’s a given. Those that burnt have never been cut down, because they are a vital part of Melbourne’s watersheds, which drain into dams.
The forests are no longer moist mountain havens, but deadly firetraps. Many of the places that burned should never have been so heavily built up. Tree farm plantations near communities should have been banned. Instead, successive governments’ policies favour big polluters and property developers. All this, despite the fact that scientists have been predicting for decades that uncontrollable blazes were inevitable, unless climate change was aggressively addressed.
The “free” market is deadly. Black Saturday was not a natural disaster. It was created out of decades of neoliberal policies that privatised utilities and left the maintenance of vital infrastructure to corporations driven only by profit. Emergency services are so run down that residents are expected to be their own fire fighters. In Australia’s cities and their surroundings, volunteers cannot possibly substitute for fully trained and equipped professional fire fighters.
Crassly neglected infrastructure and stupid planning are also at fault. The wire that ignited this deadliest of Australia’s infernos was corroded down to a thread. There was no program of inspections, because the industry is “self regulated.” Tree farms can be planted at a rate of 500 saplings per acre, guaranteeing a heavy load of combustible material. Whole suburbs are built with only one way in, and out.
There are solutions. Australia spends billions on warfare, usually in partnership with the U.S. More billions flow to bail out corporations hit by the global market meltdown. Why not bring back the troops and retrain them in firefighting?
The state government is wasting billions on a power-hungry desalination plant that nobody wants, except the developers. Scrap the project and spend the money on water recycling, domestic rainwater tanks, community fire refuges and roads in fire-prone areas.
Finally, nationalise the power companies under community control and put the powerlines underground, where they can’t spark fires. This would have the added benefit of creating real jobs in a time of economic downturn.
Black Saturday showed that state and federal authorities have abdicated their responsibility to protect the lives of a populace in peril. Their commitment to private ownership and their hands-off attitude to safety regulation not only led to the fires that day. It caused most of the deaths and injuries, the ruined homes, the devastated communities.
Peter Murray, whose friends lost their homes on Black Saturday, is a Melbourne train driver and union activist. He can be reached at email@example.com.