The fires


Jann Gilbert, marine biologist, lost her home in the Mallacoota fires in eastern Victoria. In the Australian newspaper today, she was reported to have said: “The intensity of the fire was astounding. The ferocity of it has everything to do with climate change. I have lost everything. I just have the clothes on my back.”

Reports from Cobargo, southern New South Wales: “Residents have told of the devastation and terror they felt as fire roared through the village on the NSW south coast, claiming the lives of two people, destroying dozens of homes and leaving about 10 key businesses in ruins. Matthew Elmslie woke at 3.30am on Tuesday to see a 100m-wide fire charging towards his cattle farm in the historic town. By sunset, all he had left was the clothes on his back and a torch.”

Credit: David Caird, The Australian

The time and locations change, but the bushfire experience does not. 36 years ago, the Canberra Times was reporting details of the Ash Wednesday fires in February 1983: “Victoria was in chaos yesterday. Today, it will be in mourning. […] Emergency-service officials, when asked yesterday to assess the numbers of deaths and injuries and damage, said, “We can’t. It’s just chaotic.” That was the story everywhere as frantic relatives and friends tried to check on people living or on holiday in the worst-hit areas. At least 24 people died in the Cockatoo-Beaconsfield area in the Dandenongs. A young engaged couple died as they huddled together in a stormwater gutter. An elderly man died in his front yard trying to save his house from the flames. […] In the same area 12 volunteer firefighters died (and one is still missing) when two tankers were engulfed by the flames. Two more firemen died at Nar-Nar-Goon. On the coast west of Melbourne, almost the entire population of popular seaside town Lorne huddled on the pier as the fire swept through. At nearby Fairhaven, an elderly pensioner refused to leave his house and died. At Lorne, 50 houses were destroyed. At quiet Airey’s Inlet, 300 houses are gone. In rural Upper Beaconsfield, all that was left was a milk bar. One resident estimated the fire had come through at 120 km/h; another said, “This is the end of the world.” In Melbourne, it took several hours for the full horror to sink in as Wednesday ended with 40 degree-plus temperatures. […] Witnesses tell their stories to the media in a mixture of understatement and shocked awe. […] Survivors were stunned: “All I’ve got is what I’m wearing,” said one sobbing woman at Belgrave. “It was just so quick I couldn’t do a thing.” “I’ve never seen anything so frightening in all my life,” said another woman. “Really, you would have had just as much hope spitting on it, but you had to try anyway.” […] The confirmed death toll in the Victorian and South Australian bushfires stood at 69 last night. […] The South Australian toll stood at 26. […] The Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, visited fire-devastated areas yesterday. […]Yesterday, despite a hot beginning to the day, the maximum temperature was only 33 degrees. A cool change caused the temperature to drop after midday. Today would continue to be cooler, with a maximum temperature of 26. The weekend was expected to be fine and warm with a gradual increase in the maximum temperature. There was little prospect of rain.”

2 thoughts on “The fires

  1. It is interesting to read this story from an actuary. Where does it leave you? It must be difficult to assess risk as the rules seem to be changing?
    Stephen.

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