On the hottest day on record in Victorian history my sister's home in St Andrews, 45 minutes north of Melbourne, burnt to the ground. While temperatures peaked at 48.8 degrees Celsius, ferocious winds battered a state that had baked to a tinder through 2 weeks of over 40 degree-days, and through a 13-year drought.
All day Angie and Drew had cut back and hosed off. At about 4pm they fought off four fire fronts. Burning balls of fire were tumbling through the air outside every window. As the house filled with smoke the kids were screaming under blankets on the floor where the terrified dog was shitting. They had followed to the letter a detailed fire plan, but Angela tells me 'we had no intention to stay and defend, we were trapped, and there was no warning'.
They scrambled down an embankment on to the road because it was the only thing around them not on fire. Grace fell and burnt her palm on hot coals. They went up the road under a blanket until the length of hose from their petrol pump ran out. Soon they saw through the smoke the flashing lights of the Angels masquerading as the Country Fire Authority. The firefighter told them they looked like ghosts materialising out of the smoke, and most harrowing to them was that 2 of them were children. The CFA took hours to chainsaw them up the road to safety.
They lost their lovingly tended home and garden, a beloved old dog, their eccentric chooks, but they have their lives. ‘Chas the wonder dog’ was found 2 days later on the only patch of green guarding the bag of photos Drew had pitched onto the lawn before they fled. But, as Angela tells me they have 'lost the way our family lived'. Their self-sufficient daily lives that gave them so much happiness is now 'in chaos'. Worse than that, within the weld of emotions including survivor guilt and bewilderment, Angela feels that she nearly caused the deaths of her own beautiful girls.
We picked them up from the Diamond Creek Emergency centre after midnight where people with ears full of soot huddled under the stiff dried blankets that had shielded them from ember attack. They were handed apocalyptic cards, which folded out through the phases: 'Walking Wounded', 'Priority One', 'Priority Two', and ‘Dead’. My 12 year-old niece unfolded hers to 'Dead' next to me and looked up from under the ember burn on her eyelid and said with adolescent drollery, 'Well, that's helpful'.
Somehow Angela and their family escaped the unimaginable deaths that hundreds of Victorians suffered. But the ferocity of the inferno they perished within was unnatural. There is a class action being mounted against the Singapore power company whose pole came down in the wind spraying sparks. There is an arsonist refused bail for the fire that erased the township of Marysville. There is much recrimination directed to local councils about restrictions on back burning and fuel load. But how these conditions resulted in a firestorm, which exploded with the force of some 400 Hiroshimas, and incinerated as many as 300 Victorians points to another kind of Arson.
We were warned. Over and over again scientists told us of the increased danger of bushfires fueled by severe, protracted drought and record-breaking heat waves. But over the last decade governments have either turned their backs, or dragged their feet on the warnings of their own commissioned and credible reports on climate change, or the increasingly dire warnings of the International Panel on Climate Change, which now says its 2007 report substantially underestimated the severity and rapidity of global warming.
Scientists have also warned against attributing a direct causal relation between global warming and the devastation of the Victorian bushfires. Indeed there are a number of factors at play, from arson to the privatization of amenities, to our repeated failure to heed the ecological cycle of fire-stick farming established by Aborigines over millennia.
But common sense dictates that climate change is undeniably a major factor. The morning of the fires Victorians were warned to stay indoors and not venture out into ‘our worst day in history’ because of record-breaking temperatures fanned by high winds. Southeastern Australia had experienced a record-breaking heatwave over 2 weeks and the drought had primed fuel loads with combustible vegetation that no amount of back burning could possibly keep up with.
Yet the Australian government continues to subsidize our fossil fuel industries by 9 billion taxpayer dollars annually. They will offer to the emergency summit in Copenhagen next month a piddling 5 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 from 2000 levels when Professor Ross Garnaut, in his interim report on climate change, had recommended a 25 pc reduction.
The solace of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's quite genuine words has felt empty. He has walked through the ashes and held the grieving and called the Marysville arsonist a ‘mass murderer’. But he needs to heed the growing sense that that these fires were beyond our ability to fight because they were something altogether new. He needs to heed the fire ecologists and climatologists who are telling us these bushfires were not a once in a lifetime event. Under a 'low level global warming scenario' these firestorms may be experienced every 4-5 years in Victoria. The head of the bureau's of meteorology’s National Climate Centre has offered the chilling words, ‘We are in the build-up to the next El Nino and already the drought is as bad as it has ever been — in terms of the drought, this may be as good as things get’. In other words this drought is here to stay meeting the CSIRO prediction that parts of the pretty and lush garden state of Victoria will become desert within five decades.
Carl Sagan has said that 'the universe is neither benign nor hostile but merely indifferent to creatures such as us'. But we creatures are neither indifferent nor stupid. I am no scientist but I cannot help feeling that those who have failed to act on climate change imperiled my sister and her family's lives on ‘Black Saturday’ and put them through a literal hell.
My sister is now sick with fear for the danger our parents face in Cottlesbridge over the hill from what is now her ‘property’, and for our sister and her children whose township of Beechworth was spared because of a wind change. Angie now feels 'we will go through this again until the whole state is burnt'. They are reluctant to apportion blame amongst so much sorrow. But like many of the traumatised who have joined the dots on climate change and this tragedy, part of their healing will require assurances from those in power, all around the world, that they will provide climate security to all of us, whether it is from drowning coastlines, flood, loss of food production or fire.
That is, if it isn’t already too late, as it is for hundreds of our fellow Victorians, who I know with an immediacy I have never felt before, were just people like us.
Liz Conor is a research fellow at the University of Melbourne
17 February 2009