Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Australian Fires of 7th February, 2009

In 2009 Australia witnessed the worst firestorms in the country's history. So severe were the flames that they capsized entire towns in minutes. Two hundred and fifty people died in less than three hours. Nearly 2000 houses and half a million hectors were destroyed.

Everyone in Australia grows up knowing the dangers of forest fires but no one could have predicted the devastation that swept through Victoria on February 07, 2009. It is a tragic story of loss and survival. A series of fires started in the rural hills just outside of Melbourne, Australia. Fueled by one in a thousand years weather phenomenon - this fire would change the way people perceive fire safety forever. This day would come to be known as Black Saturday. Black Saturday is labelled as Australia's worst ever natural disaster not only because of its fatality rate but also because of the impact of these fires on the community generally.

Located in the south-east of the country, the state of Victoria has Australia's second largest population. And in recent years, Victoria has been in the grip of a record drought. The week before 7th February, 2009 the plants of Victoria experienced an unprecedented scorching.

While looking at the computer simulations (on Friday 6th February, 2009) for Saturday 7th, 2009, they indicated some incredible extreme conditions: forecast temperatures in excess in 45 degrees were common across Victoria and the computer simulations were indicating burst of strong winds across the Australian deserts. The fire danger ratings that normally peaked near hundred were (on 6th February) ranging around 200-300. Basically it was a recipe for disaster. As the reality of the warnings began the take effect the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the state (Victoria's) leaders did their best to prepare Victoria for the worst.

Victorians woke up on Saturday morning to ominous warnings broadcast throughout the State. The day was declared aa "a day of total fire ban" throughout the State of Victoria. The broadcast qouted as "CFA reminds you that now is the time to implement your personal bush-fire plan. If you are planning to leave your property - leave early, and if you are planning to stay and defend your property - you should be properly prepared."
At 11 am the winds got pace, temperature began to absolutely sky rocket and humidity fell. All the figures that were predicted the day before, were becoming true. The conditions were very much alarming. It just needed a spark.

Shortly before 12 noon reports surfaced of a fire 60 kilometers north of Melbourne at Kilmore East. At 11.48am, the Kilmore fire station received a message alerting them to a small grass fire burning only 10 kilometers from their post. They had no idea that this fire would eventually turn into a 150 kilometer fire front that would go on to devastate Victoria.
Within minutes the small (seemingly harmless) fire gained momentum racing at high speeds along the grasslands. The Kilmore fire crew had no chance to outflank this fire as winds gusting over 100 kilometers per hour pushed the fire into an oil rich plantation which exploded into a towering black cloud. Eucalyptus plants are like petrol on a stick. In other words these are big trees with leaves filled with oil.

On 7th February, 2009 a very significant record was broken. The capital city of Victoria (Melbourne) reached its highest ever recorded temperature (since records commenced over 150 years ago) reaching 46.4 degrees. The State's worst fears were beginning to unfold. Those on the front lines quickly realized that this is going to be a blaze like no other.

In just two hours the fire traveled sixty kilometers. It was spreading out at an unprecedented rate through a process called "spotting". Spotting is largely from the eucalyptus bark being burned off the trees and then being carried with wind. The remains are hot enough to start a new fire where they land. On 7th February, spotting was observed 15 kilometers ahead of the main fire front. Spotting lead thousands of people caught in the firestorm. The fire was like leapfrogging.
At 2.00 pm the temperatures continued to climb. The highest temperature (48.8 degrees) of the State of Victoria was reached at Hopetoun. At 2.00 pm around a thousand spot fires were raging across Victoria.

Just as it seems that things cannot get any worse, at 02.57 pm another large fire front developed at The Murindindi 40 kilometers away from the Kilmore fire. And a wind change predicted for later in the day would create a fatal firestorm.
And then (as predicted) the wind change takes effect with tragic consequences. Prior to the wind change the locals (even close to these fires) thought they were in no danger (because the fires were moving away). But no one predicted that the fires would change so swiftly vaporizing everything in its path.
The fires violence wiped out entire towns literally within minutes. After the raging inferno passed through, those left behind found many people deceased in the cars in which they tried to escape.

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