Saturday, February 14, 2009

Victoria, Australia, February 7

The state of Victoria, as everyone by now knows, is the site of the horrific Australian wildfires that exploded on February 7. We were never in the impacted areas and we left Victoria February 6, the day before the disaster struck. We visited dry plains dotted with gum trees, steep forested hills and mountains, traces of waterfalls and rivers, dramatic limestone cliffs. We saw lots of kangaroos and koalas in the wild, along with a lone emu. In contrast to the green east coast, Victoria, in the southeast, was brown and dry. Now in the twelfth year of a drought, there have been bans on watering for years. We tried to go to a car wash. It had been closed for three years. We took a detour to see the lake built for the rowing events of the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, a beautiful area according to our Lonely Planet. All dried up. There were signs everywhere, “Extreme Fire Danger”. There was evidence – physical and anecdotal - of massive forest fires in the recent past. The news had daily coverage of bushfires raging already in the area. Down at the coast, along the Great Southern Ocean, we were told, by the friendliest people so far in Australia, this kind of heat is not normal. It had brought a plague of annoying but harmless flies that sought you out wherever it was hot and sunny as if to say, you don’t belong here. The tourist sites were hard to appreciate because everyone around was doing their best to wave off the flies. Hiking was not particularly pleasant either. Bushfires, we have been learning, are essential to the ecology of Australia. The indigenous people engaged in controlled burning to allow germination of seeds for their food supplies. The white people didn’t fare so well. One of the most evocative pieces of art we have seen was a frightening Victorian bushfire at night, painted in 1898. We can honestly say the place was in high alert. After the week of extreme heat during the tennis tournament in Melbourne (3 days in a row over 108), the temperatures moderated a bit, staying just below 100. Days in advance, the weather forecast for February 7 was, “record heat and high winds…with the risk of catastrophic fires as in Black Friday (1939) or Ash Wednesday (1993)”, each of which left dozens dead. The policy is “leave early or stay to defend”. People were prepared – but not for this one, with flames as high as 200 feet roaring down the hills not 30 miles from downtown Melbourne, a city of 3.5 million people.

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