Sunday, February 8, 2009

What's your home worth? Your life?

One of Marysville's churches. Presumed lost. (James)

It has not been a good day in Australia.

One of the things we've been learning about since returning to Australia is how to live with fire risk. We live in urban Melbourne, so face the same fire risks most of civilisation does. Not a great problem, perhaps encouraging complacency.

It's not the same up country.

If you live in country Victoria, in almost all areas, you've got to be realistic about the fact that there will be a bushfire - not if, but when, and how bad. Unlike in Canada and the USA, Australian bushfire principles are based on stay and defend, or pack and go. If you stay and defend, you are betting you can protect your home by fighting for it - you can't rely on external power, and you've only got the water you've kept in your catchments. You'll be defending your home with your own strength and betting your life.

Don't change your mind. If you are going to stay, stay. Many deaths occur when people decide they can't do it and try and drive out.

This weekend at least 84 Victorians lost that bet and died. There will be more. Others hoped that their houses might survive without them to defend. (Your chances of saving your house are good if you are trained, prepared and do the job. Most houses burn down from ember attack either before or after the fire front has gone through.) More than 700 houses have gone. Marysville, a pretty mountain town in the bush, where we've stayed for a weekend away, has gone.

The week before last we had three days in Melbourne over 43 degrees C; four over 40. But that wasn't bad because there were no high winds. Yesterday was high winds and 47 degrees C. That's a killing combination.

We've looked at houses with a view to moving to the countryside. In due course, I'm sure we probably still will - we can choose a good building on a good site, with a viable defensive plan, and we won't have a poor legacy site. When you've looked at a landscape with a view to fire risk, you don't regard shady trees as good news. You place your bets and you make a plan. You've got a good chance. But some people didn't get a fair go this weekend.

We hear a lot about 'heroes' in the military and so forth. Real heroes are those ordinary people that do extraordinary things. This weekend the CFA (Country Fire Authority) a volunteer body; are the heroes. Like real heroes many of them have sacrificed their own for their community - saving a neighbour's house while losing their own. These local communities have done their best in the face of untamed nature. Sure there's professional fire fighters, and we can't do without them. But there's never enough of them. Since the fires of 1939 and 1983 people have learned a lot. We know how to fight fires and defend property, but nature has still got the whip hand.

Meanwhile in Queensland, flooding is doing as much damage as the fires here. If there was a way to move the water 500 miles.

Here, yesterday's sky was a bit brown. The temperature today was a cool 20 degrees, and we even had a bit of drizzle (still less than 1mm in three months). There were a fair number of helicopters going over - but otherwise there were few clues that many areas of Victoria (a state the size of England) were facing devastation only equalled by war. The rest of Victoria is on high alert. Which can't be any nicer than actually facing the real fire.

There are other places I'd be happy to live, and have. But Victoria is my place - here and now. People think their home is worth fighting for.

Next time you find yourself grumbling about the weather - be grateful it's unlikely to kill you and destroy your town.

Thank you for listening.



sahlah said...

The coverage we have been getting has been scary. Are evacuation voluntary because the fire department can't possibly fight all the fires?

Our eleven western states, especially California, no longer have just a fire season - it goes year round.

Three cheers to your firefighters. It's a brutal job, often done at great personal cost - as you noted.

Stay safe. - Dawn

Sean Bradnam said...

Wow, very sobering reading.
Kinda brings the situation into sharp focus, rather than hearing a ten second soundbite on the evening news.
Difficult to comprehend the scale and severity of the issues as checking for defensive plans and assessing potential fire risk to your town doesn't usually show up on estate agents' details!
Good luck to all Victorians.
Sean (in the snow)

Taccola said...

Currently you can stay if you have a previously agreed fire plan. Otherwise you must leave early. The State Government is currently reviewing this as this weekend's fire conditions clearly overwhelmed people who had activated their 'good' plan.

Thanks! We learned very quickly how to look at a house and an environment relating to how fireproof it was. Another reason not to go down to the woods today...


RB&CB said...

Hi Guys - this has all just been truly tragic - as you say we can still not control nature. I feel myself having to write to someone who is in OZ just to say hi but in reality its because we have been to some of the places which no longer exist and its deeply deeply upsetting - the picture you posted of the church in Marysville - it was so lovely, so green.... the hotel we stayed in..fantastic place...all gone...Just can't believe it. I spoke to Jonesy this am on skype...he says he knows a few people who are missing up there. And it does not seem to be over yet. Im wondering if a bush fire proof house would have withstood that onslaught? On a lighter note good to read your blog for the latest news....I must update ours...very poor of me! Take care you three, Rich and Charlotte xx