More on the Victorian bushfires

by Lee Hopkins on February 10, 2009

in blogging,micro-blogging,miscellaneous,victorian bushfires,video

For those overseas who are interested in what’s happening with the Victorian bushfires, you can follow the very latest views and news by going to, clicking on ‘search’ and typing in the following search terms (only one at a time, alas):

#bushfires — #firecomments — #vicfires

Some of the latest updates:





Radio in Adelaide

Morning presenters Matthew and David on ABC Local Radio in Adelaide (AM 891) have been inviting much comment from Adelaidians about the Victorian bushfires, particularly in light of the uncontainable ferocity of some of them. Consensus views from the (in particular Hills’ dwelling) residents seem to indicate a preference for the ‘go’ part of the ‘go early or stay and fight’ strategy.

‘Go’ in many instances for many callers seems to be ‘go by 9am when the fire danger is ‘Extreme’, whether there is actually any fire or not’. The speed and lack of warning have made me revisit even last night’s discussion with Mrs BetterComms and our eventual decision – to leave when there is a fire within 15 kilometres of our home. I am now strongly leaning to leaving whether there is a fire or not, to packing up the dogs, cats (if we can find them) and getting down to my campus office in Magill, out of harm’s way, fire or no fire. When a fire front can travel at over 40km per hour, 15km is not enough time to round everyone up and ensure a safe passage out, methinks.

A caller also pointed out that a Royal Commission into the horrific fires in the ‘Black Friday’ fires in 1939 recommended that trenches be dug a little way away from the house and that those trenches be used for escaping the fire. Stay and fight the fire, but if/when it becomes obvious it is a losing battle, run and hide in the trench. Apparently, no one died in the 1939 fires if they sheltered in the trench; but all of those who died didn’t have a trench. It seemed that lesson was not heeded in Ash Wednesday, in other Australian bushfires, nor in this recent catastrophe.

I cannot confirm the details of the Royal Commission into the Black Friday fires (this is an excellent portal on the fires), however the ABC has published some of the recommendations of the Commission, including this snippet:

On dug-outs
Many of the millers objected strongly to the installation of dug-outs. The dug-outs were to have been constructed at the miller’s expense.

and this:

6. Safety precautions at sawmills must be improved.
Better clearing about sawmills and better provision of water is essential. The construction of dug-outs at all mill settlements, and at winches during the fire season, should be compulsory.
The Forests Act 1939 enabled the Forests Commission to enforce the installation of fire-refuge dugouts at mills built in protected forests as well as reserved forests.

Former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks chillingly wrote as an afterword to the ABC’s minisite:

The other thing the Royal Commission made quite clear was what caused the fire. Of course it was the worst possible conditions for a fire, years of drought before it, but the fire was, as Judge Stretton put it, lit by the hand of man. People camping, people throwing cigarettes or matches outside windows, or – predominantly – settlers and farmers, who were burning off in the wrong conditions in order to get new pasture.


In ’39 there wasn’t an effective system in place to protect the lives of fire-fighters, people in the path of fires and their property. Today, we have systems to shape the fire, and move it away from settled areas. Fire-fighters are now trained to know when to retreat or leave, and they have the right back-up and support. None of those systems where in place then, and I think it was pretty much ‘every man for himself’.

That is something we will never, ever do again – to not have a system in place and not have proper preparation.

Well, nature just proved us spectacularly and humiliatingly wrong, as she so often does.


Why I am so obsessed by this topic:

Last week South Australia had a similar heatwave and we widely believe we only survived without serious fires because SAPOL (the South Australian Police) closely and aggressively monitored with every known arsonist and suspected arsonist, as well as incredibly spending over 4,000 hours patrolling the most dangerous areas 24/7 to stay on top of potential arsonist activity.

Additionally, many years ago I was a teenager who proudly served, as his Dad had done before him, in his local CFS. One day we were called out to fight a fire in a dangerous part of the Adelaide Hills (upper sections of Gorge Road, Athelstone, for those who know the area).

I was in a patrol vehicle, standing up in the back along with several volunteer colleagues and holding on to the rails. At one stage I bent down to zip up my boots (most fireys in our uni
t put zips into their full-length lace-up boots in order to speed up putting them on).

As I zipped, the vehicle hit some gravel on a negative-cambered corner and lost control; we skidded off the road and down an embankment. The chap who was standing next to me died instantly when he landed on his neck; I saw the side of the truck coming to smack me square in the face and had the slow-motion time allowed could have wet my finger and drawn an ‘X’ in the dust on the side of the truck where it was going to smack me to kingdom come.

Somehow it didn’t, but I and several other volunteer firefighters were scattered all over the road and down the embankment. Such was the bruising and bumping and loss of skin on my back that I had to undergo a few weeks of physiotherapy in order to learn how to walk properly again.

One volunteer firefighter lost his life, others were badly wounded, the driver of the vehicle was exonerated of any driving errors in court, but sadly never recovered his confidence and refused to drive a CFS vehicle ever again. We were racing to put out a potential fire started by two boys who were playing with matches.

So when I read comments in newspapers and online, or when I hear comments on radio and television that call people ‘firebugs’ I feel anger wash over me; such a term is a ‘feel good’, lightweight refusal to acknowledge what these people actually are – arsonists and murderers.

Please, don’t ask me to lend support to reducing any sentences arsonists may get; please don’t expect me to go “that’s fair” if the judge gives them a slap on the wrist and tells them not to be naughty boys again.

Even as I type this tears of anger are welling up in me. WHEN these arsonists are caught may God have mercy on their souls; I am not so forgiving.

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