Monday, February 09, 2009

Fire Alarm

Fire Demon by Pants

Seat of Pants is safe, thanks for your concern. Gippsland is a very big place. In fact it’s probably bigger than Britain. That said, much of it either is or has been on fire at some point this past weekend. Larrikin’s End has been spared everything but a couple of hours of mild smoke in this dazzling demonstration of nature’s fury. A great swathe of the Australian state of Victoria has burned down in the worst homeland disaster in the country’s history. So far over a hundred people have died, many of them in the little town of Kinglake, just north-east of Melbourne where more than five hundred houses have been destroyed and the town has been obliterated. And the news is only going to get worse because some of these fires are still burning out of control. Whole communities have been wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of animals have perished. People have been burned in their cars while trying to escape. The Prime Minister told us last night, ‘the nation needs to prepare itself as the full facts become known.’ That's a sobering thought.

We knew it was going to be tough. Saturday was predicted to be the hottest day on record in most of Victoria, winds would be high and it hasn’t rained since before Christmas. These are perfect conditions for a bush fire. And then on Friday night nature hedged its bets by tossing in a phantom storm – lots of scary thunder and lightning but no rain. Lightning strikes ignited some of the fires, some had been smouldering away since last weekend and, almost inconceivably, it seems some were deliberately started by a mutant version of our own species. On Saturday morning I went for a swim. The beach was gorgeous. There was not yet much sting in the day. I was in buoyant mood as my first visitor was coming, no less than the redoubtable Ms O’Dyne. When I got back home I put the radio on. The first thing I heard was that some train services had been cancelled. Ms O’Dyne made it onto a train but was turned back an hour into her journey. I retired downstairs with some cold carrot and celery soup, set the air-con to a comfortable 26 degrees and played every DVD I could find with snow in it – Ice Ages 1 and 2, Polar Express, March of the Penguins.

In between films I checked in with the radio. By late afternoon the pungent aroma of burning timber arrived in a searing sirocco. I assume it was coming from a fire over a hundred kilometres away. By the evening it was clear that the scale of the catastrophe was much bigger than either authorities’ or individuals’ disaster plans could possibly cover. I stayed glued to ABC Gippsland, a regional radio service that had been converted to a 24 hour emergency facility, from early evening through the entire weekend. I followed the progress of the fires on a big map, never worried as I knew I was not in a danger zone. And I listened as people phoned in with their experiences. Some had only minutes to get away once they saw the fires coming towards them. They told of grabbing the kids and the dogs and powering through flames even as their car tyres melted beneath them. News started to come through of those whose flight had failed. One woman was found dead in her car with a box of crockery on the passenger seat. To imagine her bewilderment was utterly chilling. A charity shop announced it was opening its doors for displaced victims to come and get free clothing and they were putting on a barbeque supper as well. It seemed wildly inappropriate but somehow guilelessly Australian.

The radio has been the only source of information for many people in threatened areas. Almost all of the television networks have been affected with relay stations being knocked out and many people are without phone coverage. A woman phoned in from Paris having heard from a friend in Holland who was streaming ABC Gippsland that there was concern about a couple who were the next door neighbours of the Paris woman’s parents. She phoned her parents and found the neighbouring couples safe together. It soon became clear that authorities had been caught on the hop. In many instances their advice was hours out of date and in others woefully inadequate. The most accurate and pertinent information was coming from escaped fire victims and the radio was doing a sterling job of co-ordinating it all. To be fair, these were no ordinary fires. They were the gruesome product of an evil collaboration between parched land and spiteful wind and moving much faster than anyone had seen fires move before. Mistakes were made. Beleaguered announcers often didn’t know if they were coming or going as they struggled to connect talkback lines and deal with the volume of information coming at them. And there were howlers as errant microphones picked up crass asides and cluelessness. Half of the state must have listened along with me in horror as Victorian Premier John Brumby rehearsed his ‘distress’ levels, asked his advisers for feedback and then delivered his ‘emotional’ speech with the emotion tastefully notched down. I guess he's only human. In the face of such a monstrous disaster, a politician has to strike the right tone or risk a grand slagging but it sounded disrespectfully cold and detached in the circumstances.

By Sunday morning I was snuggled up safely under the duvet and by midday I had on a fleece. The temperature in Larrikin’s End had halved, a cool southerly was blowing and I could no longer smell smoke. It seemed Armageddon was on a fixed contract. I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about what I would do in an emergency. I have a huge wooden house but I don’t even have a hose. Regular readers might recall that I was put off acquiring a hose by the sheer enormity of the task of absorbing the daunting plethora of accompanying regulations and decided a watering can might suffice given my only watering requirement is a small herb garden. I’m thinking now that it would be quite difficult to damp down a thirty foot high house with a watering can. I’d need either a crane or a hose for that. A hose would certainly be more cost effective and coming to grips with the regulatory information marginally simpler than obtaining a crane licence. I would not stay and defend the house, fond of it as I am. I’d only use the hose to deal with burning debris. My plan would be to head for the river. If push came to shove, I think I’d rather drown.

Well, I did choose to live here, fully aware of the untamed nature of this country. If I’d stayed in London I’d be snowbound and kicking myself for not acting on my instinct that the British economy was about to collapse. So, in for a penny. I’m off into town now to donate some money to the disaster relief fund and find out if there is anything else I can do. My phone is now not working. Happily I called the family yesterday but now I don’t know if Ms O’Dyne is on the train. I guess I’ll meet the shuttle bus just in case. Good night and good luck…