Monday, December 11, 2006

Victorian bushfires - my recollections of 1997

It's been tragic to hear about the bushfires raging across Victoria over the last couple of weeks, but heartening to know that no lives have been lost.

Back in January 1997 I was working on a paper out in Ferntree Gully, in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges and remember very clearly the first signs of a fire that went on to claim three lives.

I had wandered out to the front of the building on Burwood Hwy and noticed smoke rising from very close to the summit of the Ranges, near the television towers. It was a hot and windy day of around 35 degrees and it had been preceeded by a whole string of hot weather, similar to the current situation across Victoria.

It was fascinating to watch as that fire quickly took hold, with flames clearly visible licking the crest of the mountain and sending eddies of smoke and flame high above the undergrowth. A wind change then sent it in off in another direction, with one fire fighter later commenting on how the fire front quite literally jumped over his head as it roared back over the crest of the hill.

While attention was focussed on that fire high in the hills, another blaze was supposedly deliberately lit at the base of the Ranges in a suburb called The Basin, near Upwey. That fire, which I spotted when it was still relatively small and close to the Highway, turned into a raging inferno that blackened the sky above the eastern suburbs - it looked for all the world like a volcano erupting.

It was this fire that climbed rapidly up the other side of the mountain and caught three residents of Seabreeze Avenue, Ferny Creek, completely by surprise. Reading transcripts from the coroners' report, it would seem that the couple and their neighbour were confused by the direction and speed of the second fire and by the time they realised the danger, it was too late to evacuate.

Watching this all transpire from the safety of Ferntree Gully made it seem like a special effects movie on a super large screen. I actually covered activities in the Dandenongs as part of my paper round and to watch this fire consume bushland that I had travelled through regularly and take the lives of people I may well have stood with in the same line at the supermarket, was a sobering experience.

In the days, weeks, months and even years after the fires, the scarred landscape never failed to jog my senses as I wound my way up the mountain.

Here's hoping that loss of life isn't repeated again this summer and that we here in Perth don't face similar threats as the temperature continues to rise.

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