Since the beginning of the bush fires in Victoria I've been doing a sort of diary of events in the catastrophic bushfires in Victoria, Australia, where the death toll is rising hourly in a national emergency. I am doing little updates as news comes in ... June
8am AEDT Sunday 8th March 2009
It seems as though, after five terrible weeks, the Victorian fires are all but stifled. They've left in their wake terrible loss of human and animal life, and the destruction of bush, housing and the infrastructure of entire towns.
This has been an one of the worst of episodes in Australian recent history - and yet it has demonstrated some of the best of human traits. We've looked after each other - unstintingly and with great courage. Well done Oz.
Now to the cyclone in the north, the flooded towns that have been underwater in the gulf country for more than two months, and not to forget the out-of-the-blue earthquake that struck Victoria yesterday. This little charmer was more than four on the Richter scale, sent crashing glasses in Melbourne bars, shaking buildings and people, but did no real harm. A very rare event indeed in that area. Whew!
Can't help wondering what Mother Nature will serve up next ...
8pm AEDT Tuesday 3rd March 2009
Victoria made it through today almost unscathed even though one hundred new fires burned and fierce and strong winds fanned four huge blazes that have been burning for a month. Thousands of bushfire fighters had been preparing for today and tomorrow, burning back and otherwise taking precautions. Today they fought the fires to keep them behind containment lines - wiith success.
However, authorities are warning that the danger is not over with more winds forecast tonight and tomorrow.
7pm AEDT Monday 2nd March 2009
Victoria is bracing itself for more extreme bushfire danger in the next 24 hours. Many people have already left their homes ahead of forecasts of 150kph northerly winds and high temperatures, to begin at midnight.
Emergency services will work throughout the night and many schools and kindergartens will be closed tomorrow.
Scientists are warning that such fire danger is the new reality in Victoria.
'This is our life now. It is not temporary,' one said.
Fire will not only be more frequent but outbreaks will be worse than have so far been imagined.
This is in an area of Australian that has traditionally be known as The Garden State for its magic national parks and extensive gardens.
It has been in the grip of drought for years now, and even famous lawned areas are crisp and dry. The former regular falls of rain are no more in Victoria. The rain falls instead further south, into the sea.
11pm AEDT Saturday 28th February 2009
Four fires are giving concern in Victoria tonight, and 75 fire vehicles are tending one of them near Kilmore. The State is expecting hot temperatures and 140 kph winds in the next day or two.
10.30am AEDT Tuesday 25th February 2009
Hundreds of bushfire fighting vehicles are being used in a race against time to extinguish more than half a dozen fires out of control in Victoria before forecast extreme weather conditions arrive at the end of the week.
The land is tinder dry because of the prolonged drought, to the extent that one serious fire began last week when sparks from a farm thresher ignited.
8am AEDT 24th February 2009
Light rain fell on some fires in Victoria during the night and people have been told they can return to their homes, even though some blazes are still out of control.
Fires were burning fiercely on the very edge of Melbourne as darkness fell. Three fire fighters were injured, one seriously, and at least one house was destroyed.
10am AEDT 23rd February 2009
People in the Yarra and Warburton Valleys in Victoria are again facing the dangers of extreme fire weather.
Many families have already packed up and moved from their homes once again ahead of this afternoon's forecast of strong northerly winds and heat.
8am AEDT 23rd February 2009
My story about the National Day of Mourning for the fires has a post of its own. Take a look and don't forget to peek at the videos as well.
There were big crowds at services everywhere, but most Australians chose to stay at home with their families, watching the live coverage. I can understand that - it's what I did. Maybe a little reclusive, but sometimes that seems best.
9am AEDT 22nd February 2009
Today is a National Day of Mourning in Australia for those affected by the Victorian bush fires. A mammoth service will be held in the Rod Laver Arena and many others in Melbourne, the Sydney Opera House and Olympic Park in Sydney and televised throughout the continent.
Bells will be rung if every city, town and village and hundreds of church and other civil ceremonies are planned in every State.
Many people from all nations in the world are signing condolence books on line.
The death toll of the tragedy is creeping up - now to 209 people - as forensic teams comb through ashes in burned out areas.
It is believed that probably 500,000 hectares will have been burned out when the fires still burning are spent.
There are dire predictions of further intense temperatures next Friday when conditions akin to those of two weeks ago may be experienced once more. Preparations are under way.
8.30am AEDT 20th February 2009
It has been relatively quiet on the fire fields in the past few hours. However several small fires are still keeping everyone on their toes. One Healesville resident said her family had packed up and unpacked four times because of one fire which had many times threatened to escalate near their home.
Two hundred police have arrived in Victoria from New South Wales to relieve exhausted southern colleagues. Apparently commanders called for volunteers for the duty of helping in the clean-up period and got 500 immediate offers.
The official death toll has now reached 208, and there is hope that it may not rise very much further.
However, there are forecasts of more threatening weather in the next few days.
8am AEDT 18th February 2009
A professional fire fighter died yesterday while cleaning up in the destroyed town of Marysville when a tree fell on him. He was part of a gigantic effort to get the town and the State back on track after the biggest natural disaster in the nation's history.
Fires are still burning in many areas, although most are not currently threatening life or property.
Police have announced that only one of the fires was the result of arson. A 37 years-old man has been charged with arson resulting in death, a charge that carries a penalty equivalent to that of murder.
Within days a Royal Commission will begin investigating all matters surrounding the fires.
It is known that temperatures rose to at least 1,000 degrees celsius during the fires, melting aluminium and glass.
People made homeless are receiving cash in their hands, plus in kind donations. Government and private help are huge. The Red Cross Bush Fire Appeal alone has now raised well over $A100million.
The official death toll is now 200, and expected to rise to 300 as bodies are discovered and identified.
As areas are made safe teams are moving in to search for native animals affected by the flames. Sadly, they are finding many dead.
9am AEDT Monday February 16
Cash from the Red Cross Bush Fire Appeal and others is already flowing in good quantities for people affected by the bush fires. Special payments have been made to families of people who died and on average other badly affected fire families are receiving $10,000. There is also a special additional payment of $7,500 for those severely injuried.
One third of the $100,000,000 cash in hand is thus already spent, and the organisation is awaiting pledges paid and not yet received.
Every dollar goes directly to victims. There are no overheads in this operation.
Of course, government is making other payments towards reconstruction and in many other areas.
Eight fires are still burning out of control, but no towns are endangered at the moment. Most blazes are deep in valleys.
8am AEDT Sunday February 15
Psychologists are advising Australians that it's okay to cry about the fires, and to have a laugh. Many involved people are dealing with their loss in that way.
There's a story about a woman in Victoria who was inspecting her burnt out home with an official who was about to enter the site. She said 'Excuse me - this way please', and indicated where the front door had been, identifiable only because the handle was lying in the ashes.
A state public servant announced his status to a hall crowded with homeless fire victims and said: 'I'm used to abuse so go ahead. That's my job.' Everyone erupted into laughter.
Milder weather conditions in Victoria have led to a lessening in fire activity today.
Three hundred former residents of the little town of Marysville, which was wiped out by the fires last week, returned to see the site for the first time yesterday. However they were unable to leave the fleet of buses transporting them because the town is still a crime scene, pending investigations of allegations of arson. A man arrested on charges of arson involving murder is still being held and is undergoing psychiatric assessment.
The re-connection of electricity is beginning at some other towns and money has been flowing into the hands of fire victims for days now - from the government and from donors. They have also received huge quantities of food and goods.
The Australian Red Cross Appeal has now exceeded $100,000,000.
Sixty fire recovery experts have arrived to help in such matters as water catchment standards and will stay in Australia for at least a month.
9.30pm AEDT Friday February 13
The Australian Red Cross has now received $85 MILLION for its Victorian Bush Fire Appeal. Most of this money was raised from donations from individual Australians and others from many other parts of the globe. This total does not include huge donations of cash and in kind from corporations and organisations throughout Australia.
Somewhere in this gigantic amount is my little contribution of $50!
The amount does not include donations from many nations, including tiny Papua New Guinea, our nearest neighbour, which has given $2 million and Indonesia $1 million.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has promised to rebuild all of the devastated trowns 'brick by brick'.
Victorian police today arrested a man and charged him with arson involving murder and a string of other matters in connection with the deliberate lighting of a fire which ended in the destruction of a town and subsequent death. The first charge alone carries a penalty of 25 years.
Police have directed that the man's identity be kept secret, for his safety. He is undergoing psychiatric assessment.
8am AEDT Friday February 13
Victoria is on the alert today with a town under ember attack and conditions worsening.
8am AEDT February 12
Thirty fires are still burning in Victoria and two of the bigger blazes are threatening to join up to present a huge and dangerous front.
The latest total on deaths is still officially 181, but this is likely to rise to 300 as searching and investigations continue.
The figure on home losses is now 1,033 and many schools, halls, roads, bridges and other infrastructure have been lost, making this likely to be the most costly event in the nation's history. The lines on roads and even mortar in brick walls burned in temperatures up to 48C (118.4F).
The weather is less problematic at the moment with light rain overnight, but heat and winds are tipped to return to extreme levels within a week.
Australians have donated $34,000,000 in cash to the Red Cross Bush Fire Appeal and millions of dollars of goods have also been made available by companies and individuals.
Investigations into the involvement of arsonists in some fires are intensifying and the State Coroner is facing 300 inquiries centred on fire deaths. Many bodies may never be specifically identified.
One man saw another walking from a fire without socks and boots, and gave him those he was wearing himself.
Recovery from such burns as those suffered in the fires will take between 12 months and two years of intensive treatment.
12.30pm AEDT Wednesday February 11
Australians have now donated $315 mill to the national Bushfire Relief Fund.
Forecasters suggest that high winds and severe temperatures will return to the bushfire area in the next couple of days.
Many fires are still burning (see map above).
Tent towns have been established for people made homeless by fires.
8.30am AEDT Wednesday February 11
It's garbage day today and I've just wheeled my bin onto the kerb for collection, and I couldn't help thinking that's a pretty ordinary thing to do. Except for those who've lost their homes in the fires.
Now I'm sitting here trying to imagine what I would do if the wind was blowing at 40 or 50 miles per hour literally rocketing globes of fire like bowling balls towards me and my loved ones. Would I go or would I stay?
That's a question that a Royal Commission will be trying to answer in the next weeks and months in Victoria. Should authorities advise people to make up their own minds when to leave, taking into account personal circumstances and precautions that they had established to protect themselves? This, together with an efficient warning system and support, has been the system that's worked for many years.
Or do they become proscriptive, making an announcement that everyone must go NOW? What would happen then? Would everyone panic, clogging the roads with cars and frightened drivers?
Many people died this week, doing just that. They paniced and died in their melting cars.
In the past few days Australians have realised that the old rules may not work any more, and that human beings must adapt in many areas of their lives if they are to preserve anything like the world they had known.
What would you do?
Donate to the Australian Red Cross here
6pm ADST Tuesday February 10th Febroary 2009
The official death toll has now risen to 181 people, with a forecast that the number could rise to 300. The Victorian Government is saying that many bodies may never be identified.
At least 4,000 people are homeless.
Speaking in Federal Parliament, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said that 500 people had been injured, the number of houses lost was confirmed at 1,000 today, 365,000 hectares of land had been burned and entire towns had disappeared. Meanwhile fires are still burning in a wide area of the State.
Mr Rudd said that national leaders from many parts of the world had sent condolences regarding the fires and France and the USA and had offered help. Thailand was considering ways of offering aid.
USA President Barack Obama rang Mr Rudd offering the prayers of himself and his wife and said that the American people were 'with Australian people today'.
Mr Rudd said his government would establish a Federal Reconstruction Authority to oversee the recovery following the fires and would put in place arrangements such as expediting the replacement of identification documentation, including driving licences lost in the fires.
'There will be no cap put on Commonwealth contributions required for the rebuilding of communites,' he promised.
8.30am ADST Tuesday 10th February 2009
Many fires in Victoria in southern Australia are still burning and in some places are increasing in ferocity. People are still dying.
The confirmed death rate has risen to 173 with identifications still happening, and bodies still being found. No updated figures have been released regarding the number of homes that have been lost.
Climate scientists coincidentally meeting in an international conference in Melbourne acknowledge that these fires are 'different'. Dr Greg Holland, an Australian now working for the US Centre for Atmospheric Research said last night that the record breaking temperatures now being experienced here were the result of climate change due to greenhouse gases. It was now obvious that this established ideal conditions for fire and that extreme fire events would happen more often as a result.
He said that there was a consensus among scientists working and publishing in the area that the globe was warming and that this was responsible for changes in rare events such as severe rain and fire.
A Melbourne University professor said that among developing countries, it had been established that Australia was most at risk of adverse effects from climate change and that it would experience almost no positive effects from it.
John Bumby, the Premier of Victoria has ordered a Royal Commission to inquire into circumstances surrounding the fires. It was likely that rules would be changed to take into account the new extremes.
He said the State had planned for a 'king tide' when preparing for the fires. 'What we got was a tsunami.'
Thousands of homeless people are being accommodated in shelters, unable to return to their burned out homes because of the danger involved in venturing into the affected areas, and because many of them had been declared a crime scene.
Investigation teams are combing huge areas for any evidence of arsonists setting some fires, and taking advantage of bush rendered timber dry by extreme heat and prolonged drought.
The Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is flying back to Canberra today, and Parliament is sitting.
Written by June Saville at 8.30pm ADST Monday 9th February 2009
'What has happened today is beyond belief, it is beyond precedent and, really, it is beyond words.'
The Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard was moving a condolence motion in the Federal Parliament in Canberra following the nation's worst ever national disaster, the Victorian bushfires of the week-end just past. And she said the crisis was still not over.
'It will get worse and Australians will need to prepare ourselves for more tragedies.'
As she spoke the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was still in the bushfire area where 120kph winds and 48C (118.4F) temperatures yesterday fanned flames, turning two thirds of the State into what one journalist described as a nuclear landscape. Some of the fires were as tall as ten storey buildings.
Tonight the confirmed death toll rose to 131 people and this is bound to rise again as recovery teams identify bodies still being found in burned out houses, cars, sheds and even in the open air.
Tonight 3,500 people are homeless, and figures about the number of homes destroyed have still not been clarified. Even so, 33 fires still rage in Victoria and 4,500 trained volunteers and professionals are fighting them.
Scientists are saying it seems that climate change producing extreme summer heat and a prolonged drought created the conditions for this to occur. Others suggest that rules will need to be re-written because so much has changed.
Amazing to me, arsonists have taken advantage of the conditions and have actually set some of the fires. They face the equivalent of a murder charge if a death is involved, and there is talk of increasing this penalty. Whole towns have been declared crime scenes to allow investigations to find the culprits.
Today I noted some remarks those involved have made to journalists about their experiences:
'Me kids are dead. I played golf with a twelve year-old on Saturday but he is not here any more.'
'We're going to have a lot of funerals to go to - to bury friends. I've lost me house and probably eight friends who've died.'
'People are having to rummage through clothing bins for something to wear.'
'My truck didn't burn. It melted.'
'We lost stuff. In the end it's just stuff. We didn't lose lives and we didn't lose people.'
'Relationships are so important. Seeing the community coming together is marvellous.'
'We can'l go home. It's rubble. Where will we go?'
'They followed all of the rules and yet came within an ace of dying.'
'I think we've had enough of living in the Australian bush.'
'Are these a sign of things to come?'
'The fires themselves seem to be behaving differently.'
'When you see people now they say two things: Good to see you and do you have a house? So far the answer's about 50-50.'
'The baker lost his home and came out next day to feed people who didn't have food.'
'Because of extreme winds fires spotted 40km ahead of the fire front. How do you outrun a menace like this?'
And from Julia Gillard again: 'The sadness is, children have been involved' and:
'To the extent that we can combat nature's might we will act to ensure that such will not happen again. It will not be easy.'
8.30am ADST Monday 9th February 20009
A fire co-ordinating officer in the Victorian bushfires in Australia has told his men and women that today was 'all about holding the ground'. 'Yesterday we got belted,' he said 'and today we must consolidate. We must bond together.'
The army has arrived to help.
The State Chief Police Commissioner Christine Nixon said the fire yesterday had been a 'fast fire'. Flames which normally would have covered a given distance in a week travelled at four times the speed yesterday, she said.
Many firefighters have not had a break in 24 hours. A large proportion of them are trained volunteers.
There are 4,000 out there, still fighting.
Hospitals are absolutely stretched, treating thousands with burns and other injuries. Some badly burned people lay untreated for hours because it was often too dangerous for rescue teams to reach them. Helicopters did an amazing job, ferrying patients constantly. Nurses and doctors are working extra shifts.
Patients are traumatised, wondering about the whereabouts of their relatives. Others are wandering around organised staging posts, pleading for news.
8am ADST Monday 9th February 2009
The death toll in Victoria's bushfires has now been placed at 108 and recovery teams are combing burned houses, sheds and cars for more bodies. Numbers will rise by the hour.
People coming out of the areas are now realising that the fires were worse and more deadly than they ever dreamed of. The hellish conditions are still not over and the effects will affect the lives of many forever.
In one town, Kings Lake, 37 bodies were found, many of them in cars. People had made the mistake of leaving at tthe very last minute, in panic.
Fire fighters told the story of trying to hold toddlers while treading water themselves in a dam as 'tornadoes and fireballs' surrounded them in every diection. The fire had seemed to be miles away when the blaze appeared on the valley wall 2km away and raged down around them within a couple of minutes.
We are awaiting an announcement this morning about the number of houses that were lost, but reports are coming in of towns with 500 houses flattened.
There are queues of people offering help. Australia is fighting back.
I think there will be tremendous resolve now to beat the effects of climate change. We have known about this, but nature is now demonstrating how horrific things could become.
Flood waters are receding in Ingham in Northern Queensland.
10.30pm ADST Sunday 8th February 2009
In devastating bushfires this week-end so far it is known that 84 people have died, ten others are fighting for their lives and thousands of others have been burned and injured in the State of Victoria in southern Australia. These figures are bound to rise sharply as emergency recovery teams move into the area.
Fierce strong winds fanned the flames in temperatures of 48C or 118.4F to send the fire screaming through tinder dry bushland. This is the driest continent on earth and many of our trees are eucalyptus, producers of highly flammable oils, often used to heal. In hot fiery conditions they explode.
So far it has been announced that 330,000 hectares of land in Victoria have been burned and many other fires are still burning, one with a front 80km long. There is no doubt that this is a national emergency.
Official figures say that many more than 700 homes have been totally destroyed and again this figure will rise hugely. It is known that two small towns alone lost 500 houses. In one town a single house was left unscathed. Many died in that community.
One particular fire in the north of the state near Beechworth is still out of control and threatening lives and private property as well as some of the state's most important electricity infrastructure. We have been warned that dangers are still far from over.
I am writing this part of my story at 8pm, just after seeing a special hour long national news programme on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) - necessary to compile some sort of picture of the incredible devastation. Grown hardened journalists told the story fighting back tears, chests heaving. They called it an unprecendented event and certainly the worst natural disaster in Victoria since Europeans arrived there in the late 18th century.
I am a long way from the scene. Even though my State, New South Wales has had to fight 55 fires today we know that our problems are miniscule, with no loss of life or property. I have watched Victoria from this distance, horrified. You will see my first updates on the post above, written as things unfolded when darkness lifted and the first inkling of what had happened was revealed in the morning light.
Towns were completely flattened and people died attempting to flee in their cars.
One historic little town called Marysville was described as a 'war zone'. An elderly former resident described how his town had just disappeared, 98 per cent gone. A journalist said what didn't burn in the town simply melted.
In other parts of Victoria many people still can't find relatives and fear the worst. One couple came back from a quick visit to the supermarket to find their house burned down.
A man who lost his home near the Bunyip State Forest said that 'the fire came out of the forest at a hundred miles an hour and took everything before it'.
Two hundred and fifty of our NSW fire fighters and many more disaster teams have gone south to help out. Other teams are making their way there from every other state.
The Northern Territory is sending its disaster victim identification team, formed after the Bali bombings when dozens of holidaying Australians were incinerated in the terrorist attack a few years ago. The team will need the same skills now.
One big strong Australian man in a check shirt sobbed on the shoulders of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as the man told of his personal tragedy.
Mr Rudd, clearly deeply moved, was outwardly calm and purposeful, and empathetic. He'd flown from Canberra from negotiations to get through a $A42 billion emergency package to stimulate the economy in the global crisis and was asked if he could now afford to help the Victorians.
Mr Rudd has asked the nation to prepare ourselves for the full extent of the suffering. Many people have come out of this with only the shirt on their backs he said, and all have had 'a huge kick in the guts'.
The nation would stand 'in absolute solidarity' with people affected by the fires 'as partners in the rebuilding of their communities'. He has called out the army to help, ordered millions of dollars in cash payments for emergency clothing and other immediate needs and launched a disaster relief fund so that 'regular members of the public' could also help.
It was the first time that Mr Rudd had been called on to lead his nation in a catastophic situation, and to my mind he passed with flying colours.
The Victorian fire chief said that his men and women had been through 'gut wrenching experiences'. He said that Victorians were overwhelmed by the mateship and comraderie and the sense of support coming from all parts of the nation.
'We stick together and this is a can do society,' he said.
Meanwhile, at the top end of Australia floods are enveloping towns for the second time in a week, with extremely heavy monsoonal rain, in part the result of a cyclone. Some people had almost cleaned up after the first bout when the second arrived today.
The Mayor of the small town of Ingham said 'it was like being hit in the back of the head with a sledge hammer' - twice.
We do have to fight the war against global warming - with all of our might. It's become obvious more than ever in recent weeks, and throughout the world, with extreme weather events in the headlines everywhere.
What have had experience of such events where you live?
The blue beyond
2 days ago