Seeds of disaster in the line of fire

Seeds of disaster in the line of fire

2 January 2010

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Australia — The farmers’ blessing can be a nightmare in waiting, as Malcolm Brown reports.

Winter rains were good in Western Australia’s south-west. But, as always, they brought mixed blessings – great for the fodder and crops but sowing the seeds of disaster. Once the moisture was absorbed or evaporated, the land was a time bomb.

Though temperatures were not extreme, it took only a spark – a fallen power line in the Toodyay district 80 kilometres north-east of Perth – at lunchtime on Tuesday to produce the worst bushfire disaster in the state for nearly 50 years.

The fire raged through the wheat belt on Tuesday and Wednesday and threatened Toodyay. A separate fire occurred in the shire of Dandaragan, wheat-belt country about 150 kilometres north of Perth, and burnt into Coorow shire.

Toodyay had seen all this before. In February 2007, clashing powerlines contributed to a fire that went through farmland and caused the death of a schoolteacher.

This time, with memories of the Victorian Black Saturday fresh in people’s minds, many heeded the authorities’ advice and evacuated.

According to the fire service guidelines, it was a voluntary decision. Even so, some evacuees told of narrow escapes, including Tammy Broadwood, who described her terror when she collected her father in Toodyay.

”I was worried the tyres were going to melt,” she said.

Thirty-eight homes were lost at Toodyay, along with farm sheds, equipment and livestock. Three thousand hectares in the district has been burnt out. The Dandaragan fire burnt out 10,000 hectares and destroyed a sandalwood plantation. The WA Premier, Colin Barnett, touring the devastation, predicted a possible backlash from those who had heeded advice to ”relocate” but might have stayed to fight the fires. The chief operations officer of the Fire and Emergency Services Authority, Craig Hynes, pointed out that if houses had been lost, lives had not.

Amid recriminations over who was responsible for the Toodyay fire – the finger being pointed at the electricity supplier, Western Power – Barnett declared the area a natural disaster and promised $3000 grants to families for accommodation and clothing.

The Federal Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, promised help to individuals, local governments, primary producers and small businesses.

As with so many other fires in Australia, the terrifying feature was the speed at which they developed. The state’s bushfire toll had not been high – 13 deaths in 30 big fires since 1939.

The population is smaller and less concentrated than on the east coast, and the state lacks the numerous steep hills and mountains that accelerate fires.

But other conditions can make up for that. Just ask people in the timber town of Dwellingup, south of Perth.

On January 19, 1961, temperatures exceeded 40 degrees and winds were powered by a tropical cyclone in the north-west. No lives were lost but 132 houses, two service stations and three shops were destroyed and a total of 1.8 million hectares were burnt.

The Bushfire Co-operative Research Council and the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council have assessed Western Australia’s south-western corner as above average fire risk. But so, too, is south-eastern Australia, and northern NSW into Queensland.

Rainfall in South Australia, including the eastern end of the Lower Eyre Peninsula, produced more fuel. When it dried, it fuelled the fire that came just before Christmas, when houses were destroyed and people were forced to evacuate Port Lincoln.

In October fires burnt fiercely in central Queensland. In the week before Christmas, 70 burnt across NSW, causing property and livestock loss, and injuries to firefighters. Emergency services also had to contend with flooding on the north coast, in the central west and far west of the state. It did not turn the hapless stock to charred carcasses but it did drown many; at other places they were standing with just their heads above water.

Victoria has the country’s worst bushfire history. Since 1939, 39 major fires have killed 451 people, including 173 on Black Saturday last February 7. Eighty-two people have died from 47 fires in NSW; 11 in 29 Queensland fires; 58 in 35 South Australian fires; and 63 in 19 Tasmanian fires, all but one of those deaths as a result of fires on February 7, 1967.

Why are fires in Victoria so deadly? Dense population and masses of fuel. Fifty thousand Victorians have flocked to seminars about bushfire survival. But soul-searching and contingency planning also followed the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires in Victoria and South Australia.

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