Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Victoria fires

It's hard to comprehend fires so big and intense that entire towns are destroyed. I was incommunicado when the fires hit, so it was something of a shock when I got back from holiday to discover so many people had been killed, and so much destruction - entire towns with not a building left standing. After an unprecedented heat wave, some of the fires started naturally, but some of the fires were acts of arson, and possibly even murder, with over 4o people killed in the fire that consumed Marysville, which is believed to have been deliberately lit. The death toll in these fires now stands at 189. A contingent of 50 New Zealand rural firefighters has headed over to assist on the front line, with more scheduled to head over in the next few weeks. I wish I were more qualified as a fire fighter, then I'd go too.

I know some of these towns were very scenic locations with houses nestled in amongst the trees, and this was part of the problem once the fires had started. Without a break between bush and houses, the houses were consumed as fast as the trees. The trees which provided shade & shelter were also a death trap.

I saw on the news a couple whose house had been spared because seven years ago they had bulldozed 250 trees to create a fire break around their house - earning them a $50,000 fine and criminal conviction at the time. Their house still stands whereas everything else in a 2km area has been obliterated. It's an interesting illustration of the juggling act that councils need to play between protecting the natural environment and protecting the lives of the people that live there.

Through our ability to fight and prevent bush fires, we have actually intensified the danger to ourselves and increase the potential for disaster. By extinguishing the small fires which would naturally have ripped through and burned off the deadfall and dry undergrowth with low intensity, the fuel load builds and builds. More fuel means bigger and more intense fires that spread more rapidly.

In a country where the trees explode, and the forest likes to burn as part of its life cycle, fire breaks are incredibly important. Things aren't as bad in New Zealand, but in areas where gorse is predominant, having a fire break between you and the quite flammable bushes is a good thing. There are some areas of Porirua where I know that gorse grows right up to people's wooden fences. If you're in an area with bush over the back fence, have a look at it. Ideally you should clear about 5 metres, so that you have a decent fire break. Contact the council if your place backs on to council reserve.

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