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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Victoria's bushfires one week later: the media's coverage of Black Saturday

It's been a week since the bushfires (all 400 of them) swept through the state of Victoria, Australia, leaving tragedy in their wake. Over 200 people died and 7000 homeless, and many more were injured. The weekend newspapers here released special editions today, much of which have been published online, and provide a comprehensive overview of the catastrophe with excellent coverage of the many heartbreaking stories of the last week. If you're just catching up on the news now, check them out:
The Australian newspaper's
Special: Victoria's Bushfires includes pieces such as How the Battle for Victoria was Fought and Lost, which conveys the dread felt by firefighters who predicted the catastrophe based on the weather and circumstances that day; Life or lifestyle warns fire chief explains the 'tree-change trend', where people have been choosing to escape urban life for a bush lifestyle, settling amid dense vegetation, and ingoring demands to reduce bushfire hazards; while The day a spot of bushfire fun turned to terror well explains the terror at Kinglake, where the ferocity of the fires took everyone by surprise, decimating the hilltop community. The writer describes how people covered in burns came down the mountain on Sunday and said: "It was a firestorm." "It was an inferno." "It was like a bomb went off, like Hiroshima." "It was a massacre up there." and "I spent the night hosing down bodies." Also read this story on how Residents brace for visit to burnt-out ground zero.
The Age's coverage entitled Our Darkest Day begins with a story on the class action suit the people of Kinglake, who believe a fallen powerline started the fire, are planning against the government-owned power company and includes scores more stories, a compilation of articles from the last week, and dozens of photo galleries, and video and audio reports, but if you only read one story, read On the Edge, which argues that public policy is to blame because "One of the many paradoxes of Black Saturday is that the authorities were able to predict the conditions, including the lethal wind shift later in the day, but not the consequences of what their computer modelling was telling them. Brumby, the Victorian Premier, advised the public that the impending danger would be greater than Ash Wednesday in 1983 or Black Friday in 1939." Yet, as the writer claims, none of the general alerts were backed up with timely and specific information on the day.


Mark H said...

On the Edge is an interesting and thought-provoking article. I'm dubious of forced evacuations - using authorities valuable time to argue and compel people to leave will also cause lots of issues. I also suspect that no amount of controlled burning would have helped in this instance - fireballs of burning trees were lobbing on people's roofs several kilometres away. Should people be able to live so close to bushland? There seems to be an argument for even more building standards. Maybe underground shelters like that in the hurricane/twister belts of the US may help save some people, pets and possessions - but will add to costs. Communication appears to have been an issue despite the efforts of the ABC and CFA and others. I thought the ABC were stellar in their broadcasting efforts but maybe more neesd to be done.

We can only hope that we do learn more from this tragedy so that the next bushfires wherever they may occur does less damage with improved knowledge from this fire. I still get a feeling that a lot of collective knowledge kept the toll to what it was as it could have been many times what it actually ends up being.

You've written excellent articles on the bushfires from someone who seems to capture the mood so well. My compliments to you.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Mark

Thanks for the compliments! Really, they're much appreciated. And I'm so glad you found On the Edge as insightful as I did.

I'm still in two minds about forced evacuations... in theory, I think people should be allowed to make up their own minds whether to stay or go, however, I don't think everyone has the knowledge or experience in fires to make the best decision nor are as well equipped as they think they might be to stay and fight the fires. In the case of some of those fires, such as that at Kinglake, it seems to have been so ferocious that nobody really had a chance.

I think underground bunkers are definitely a way to go, and how expensive can be, really? Some of the old brick houses (like my uncle's here) in fact have old underground wine cellars and storage rooms that can be converted.

On the subject of controlled burning, I've always understood this from the indigenous point of view which in turn has been adopted by National Parks in some areas because they believe it helps prevent fires, but it was interesting to read a quote in that article (or another?) from a Royal Commission report on bushfires which believed that graziers' controlled burning over the years was partly to blame. I don't see that point of view, but interesting to see a converse opinion (I'll have to investigate more). But you're right - while controlled burning (and better management of fuel/fire hazards) might have helped fires at Eagleahawk here where a lot of long dry grass fueled the flames, it probably wouldn't have had any impact at Kinglake or some of the other towns.

Once again, thanks for the feedback! And thanks for dropping by!

Mark H said...

I think people ultimately have to make their own call (even if they are not the most knowledgeable) and hence I'm against forced evacuations. If nervy authorities start issuing evacuations calls that prove unnecessary or even worse, fail to call for one and people get trapped, then the liability for people's deaths lie with someone else. On top of that, there will be tose who stand fast on their "right" to stay forcing authorities to take physical action to forcibly remove folks. They have better things to do when time is so precious and people have to work together. I think the "leave early or stay" policy works quite well. Communications have to be maximised to ensure people get the best available info at the earliest possible time. Despite the best efforts of the ABC and CFA, it seems that has been difficult in this casxe when things moves so fast.

The aftermath of this fair will make for some extremely difficult decisions such as the policy of whether people are entitled to stay and fight. We can only hope that we employ the most resourceful people for such a task.

Lara Dunston said...

Let's hope! Thanks again for your comments. Much appreciated.