Post script 12th Feb: In the midst of so much loss, one tiny victory. I'm afraid I never have figured out how to embed videos, but I hope this link works.
Believe me, this is amazing. Koalas are not tame, and they can actually be very aggressive. (They're not bears, either, despite the lovely CFA guy's awful pun). As a general rule, they don't drink water either, getting all their hydration from eucalyptus leaves. This is very special indeed:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=do9AoKyjjQg Photo from The Age newspaper, taken by reader Jac Warburton.Photo taken from suburban Doncaster by the Mulherin family. Again, from the Age.
This can be a merciless country at times. Last week floods devastated whole towns in Northern Queensland, and the water levels are still too high for many to return to see what they can salvage from their homes. Now, over the last twenty-four hours, terrible fires have raged, exploded and raced at speeds never before seen across vast areas of country Victoria. This morning it has been reported that 108 are confirmed dead, and the number keeps climbing as firefighters and emergency services are able to re-enter areas devoured by the fires.
The fires are still spreading. Over 750 houses are confirmed gone already, and among so many towns ravaged, there are at least two which now no longer exist in any form at all, such was the power of the firestorm. Livestock, domestic animals and native animal populations have also been lost in huge numbers.
While London was under a foot of snow last week, we were experiencing temperatures well into the forties; 46.7 in Melbourne one day, with a humidity level of 4%. On the rare moments I ventured outside, I swear I understood what a baking potato feels like. The heat was indescribable. And to fight a fire in that? Suddenly the concept of Hell is very real.
On Saturday it was in temperatures of up to 47 degrees (that's 116 degrees Farenheit) that most of these fires were born, fed by vicious North winds that created conditions akin to standing in front of a huge blast furnace. Several fires joined up to cover thousands of hectares at once with equal strength. Even cooler conditions in many places yesterday did nothing to slow the spread of firefronts which are still travelling terrifyingly fast.
The reports are horrific. People in their homes who five minutes before had been assured the fire was not an immediate threat to them were engulfed by flames driven by sudden wind changes, with fire fronts moving so fast they covered kilometres in seconds. Many others died in their cars, thinking (or perhaps beyond thinking) that they could outrun the danger and escape. Being on the road in a bushfire is never a good idea. This weekend it was suicide.
Common wisdom says if you are properly prepared, you are safest in your house. This time, the worst weather conditions ever recorded meant that even some of those who did everything right weren't able to survive, though there are many amazing stories emerging of those who did. One family, unable to save their house, ran down into an already burnt gully with bundles of wet sheets and blankets and hid in and around against a wombat hole, sheltered by a dirt mound.
We have friends in some of these areas. Thankfully, all are safe, and although one may have lost a vineyard and weekend house, none have been left homeless. This morning I spoke to Mads' lovely friend Laura, who has been at her family's farm for the weekend. We had been texting messages during what we thought was their worst time of threat, but it was only this morning we found how close they had come to disaster. The fire was a mere 400 metres from them when the wind blew it back on itself. They had no running water to operate hoses, as loss of power meant the pumps couldn't operate. I'm shaking even as I think of what could so easily have happened. The danger is not yet over for them. Winds can still change, and they have been told it is still not safe for them to leave.
The volunteers fighting these fires are as brave and heroic as human beings can ever be. To face walls of flame driven by winds so great that they leap four lane highways as you would jump a puddle, creating the sort of fireballs associated with chemical explosions is just staggering. To cope with the terror, the heat, the exhaustion of twelve hour shifts and the emotional trauma of finding victims ... these people are just magnificent.
However, there is another, darker side of humanity. There is already evidence that while lightning strikes may have started several of the fires, it is arsonists who have created much of this maelstrom. It is here that words just can't express what I feel. I hope they are caught. I hope they are charged with mass murder. I hope they are made to face some of those who have lost family, animals, houses, precious memories. And I hope they live long enough to comprehend the horror of what they have done.