”We were lucky at first. At the end of January 2009 the State of Victoria [Australia] sweltered through three successive record-breaking days of 109.4°F-plus heat. In Melbourne the mercury climbed to 113°F, the third-hottest day on record. Birds fell from the sky, bitumen bubbled underfoot…the next morning [the newspaper] the Age carried the prescient headline: ”The sun rises on the worst day in history.”
Black Saturday. Our luck was about to run out.”
This is the story of the 2009 bushfire in the state of Victoria in which 173 people died and countless homes were incinerated. In a twelve-hour span, the raging fire in the Kinglake National Forest north of Melbourne created wind speeds estimated between 90-120 mph, spreading the fire through a dry eucalypt and beech forest like a blow-torch.
Worst of all, perhaps, is the realization that at least one of the many fires that scoured the area that day was deliberately set. The air pressure systems over and around Australia that day turned the conflagration into the worst in the country’s history. The wind threw the flame to four points of the compass and surrounded people as they turned to flee.
Local fire volunteers struggled in vain against conditions that quickly overwhelmed them. Local police tried to locate and corral those outside their homes and find a safe place for them to shelter. State and national responses were very late due to the speed and fury of the blaze. TV commentators were still calmly reporting “hot weather” as the flames engulfed homes.
”It is hard to imagine a more dramatic illustration of the fact that, if you are going to make your home in a fire zone, the only person you can rely on in an emergency is yourself.”I would have to amend that and say that in an emergency [of any sort], expect to rely on yourself. Mobilizing forces, equipment, material is a time-consuming endeavor, and if, say, one does not live in a fire zone on a high-possibility-of-fire day but experiences a natural disaster of another sort (earthquake, tornado, flood), one must always manage for a while, sometimes a good while, without outside aid.
”The lesson of how to live with our environment has yet to sink into our bones. Rather than adapting to our environment, we are isolating ourselves from it, building barriers of plastic and steel between ourselves and the real world.”
Hyland has done us a great service, by telling us what happened that summer day in Victoria. His writing recounts (and reflects in some places) the confusion at the scenes. He did a herculean job of trying to interpret the necessarily hazy memories of the survivors who were so filled with anxiety and adrenaline that there is little they remember clearly. He highlights the extraordinary efforts of a few individuals who did the best they could for their community against overwhelming odds.
I felt the maps were painfully incomplete for someone unfamiliar with the lay of the land. While the first map gives some small indication of topography, latter maps would have been much more useful with contour lines indicating steepness of the slope. In his account Hyland tells us the flames moved up the mountains in minutes. It would have been useful to see where the mountains actually were, and where the concentration of dwellings lay. But Hyland did a very good job in showing us how the actual event played out in the eyes of those involved. What a horror show.
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